What if you opened a business and no one came?
That's what happened to Spark Beer, a funky playground of artisanal beers on Ottawa's Somerset Street West, that had the misfortune of opening the first week of a pandemic lockdown.
After six years of careful planning and doing their due diligence, Andrea Gormley, the business gal, and her partner John Sproull, the beer maker, had planned to open a micro-brewpub in the summer of 2019.
However, costly construction delayed their opening to the early months of 2020. By then, Ottawa was lockdown city.
Instead of elation, the pair fell into a severe case of buyer's remorse.
“We weren't sure if we would last a month,” says Gormley nervously. “Construction took longer and cost more than we expected. So when we finally opened, we needed cash flow right away, there were so many bills to pay. But we couldn't because we were in lockdown. We didn't even qualify for business allowances from the government because we were new and had no revenue to speak of. I was so sick of being scared, but we had to move forward because we had a lot already invested. We couldn't not try to make it work.”
Except the business needed a quick rethink. With pubs closed and patrons drinking at home, Gormley and Spoull pivoted the business from a brewpub and tasting room into a retail store you could drink in.
The pivot carried the business through the leanest months of the lockdown. By July, they were serving beer on their back yard patio. Business was buzzing. Spark finally got it's spark.
Spark Beer specializes in unconventional beer flavours, fruit-infused sour beers, IPAs and Saisons. Fete, a brew aged in oak, is Gormley's favourite.
The jukebox plays top-40 and new wave from the 70s and 80s. The vibe is vinyl. The current menu barely rises above snacks. Popcorn, cheese tray, but they'll be adding pizza to their menu soon.
A realist as well as an idealist, Gormley knows that the good times may only last until the next wave of novel coronavirus incites another lockdown.
“Things feel stable for now, but it's not settled. It's COVID-settled,” Gormley explains, resigned to fate. “This summer has been good. That was supposed to be normal. But the winter was hard. However, I'm less scared about surprises. After a while you get numb -- either it will work or not. We've learned how to navigate the four seasons of the pandemic.”
After 18 months in the hot house of pandemic, Gormley and Spoull have not only learned how to survive in a hostile market, but thrive. The reason is she's alway's looking forward to ways she can improve the Spark experience. She's planning to add comfortable furniture, a pizza oven, and adding a second location at some point.
“We wanted to be different. That's how we are.”
Gormley adds that it's also important to her for women to take their place in beer's hierarchy. Historically a male dominated business, Gormley is one of 16 (and counting) women calling the shots at one of Ottawa's craft breweries. All of Spark Beer's brewers are women.
“The more women get into making beer, the more interesting beer becomes,” she says. “Women were the first brewers, it was something you made in your kitchen. It wasn't until it became cool that the men took it away.”