It’s a rainy Tuesday morning when Matt Cowan enters his Hamilton, Ont. restaurant, The Heather. He’s here to do some prep work for the week after spending a late night serving his customers – all six of them.
The sight could be misconstrued as a joke. A large, tattooed chef working in a kitchen to prep, cook and serve a six-seat restaurant, the smallest in the city.
But it’s not a joke. Nor has it been easy for Mr. Cowan. Prior to a recent renovation, when wine bottles were more visible from the street, the restaurant, located in Barton Village, was robbed. The year before, in 2017, when Cowan and his wife Meg lived in the apartment above, an anarchist group shouted insults before breaking the restaurant windows.
Three years ago, Mr. Cowan and his wife moved from Toronto to Hamilton to pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant.
The first dinner service at The Heather took place in Nov. 2016. Friends and family filled the place, although it wasn’t too difficult, given the 500-square-feet of space. There were only six tables but the feeling inside this small space was airy and crisp, the lighting subdued. “It feels welcoming,” Mr. Cowan says, “like eating at a friend’s home." Known for his culinary flair, Mr. Cowan served a tasting menu that night – he cooked while his wife served. (Go to the restaurant these days and a similar seven-course tasting menu – with delicacies like pork cheeks, charred cabbage or celery root with hazelnut velouté and raisin purée – would set you back $100 or more per person. And, yet, the next night, no one came.
“Being the first one to do anything, you have to be brave or stupid – I might have been stupid,” Mr. Cowan says with a laugh.
“It was definitely a risk. Who wants to open a fine dining restaurant in a downturn neighbourhood? But I stand behind my food and once the word got out, people started to come regardless of where we were.”
Not everyone likes growth
Not everyone appreciated Mr. Cowan’s vision which white walls, an open kitchen, and decor that is more likely to appear in a high-end food magazine than in tiny spot in downtown Hamilton. Add to this the price – customers should expect to pay about $100 per person – and many of the local residents began to protest, arguing that gentrification in the city’s downtown core is forcing many people to move away from neighbourhoods they’ve called home for a number of years.
The Heather was one of the spots impacted by protests on Locke St. in early 2018 as anti-gentrification anarchists went on a vandalism spree costing the city upwards of $100,000 in repairs.
The aggression, according to Marvin Ryder, an assistant professor at McMaster University, stemmed from the changing city impacting those who had been there and lived a certain way.
“Now they have to pay $6 for a cup of coffee, but the place is nice. They liked the place before because the coffee was only $1,” Ryder says. “What’s good for some is not good for all.”
“That [resistance] was definitely hurtful and frustrating,” Mr. Cowan says. “I had a rough childhood, so I felt Barton Village was part of my story.”
“There’s always been something about this neighbourhood. It’s got a bad reputation in the city but we’re not from Hamilton, so we didn’t have the preprogrammed biases against the city. We could look past the history and at the potential.”
The city is still gritty, Mr. Cowan says, but things are changing now thanks to places like The Heather and a collection of restaurants gaining worldly accolades in the nearby James St. North neighbourhood.
Turns out the celebrated food scene in Hamilton, a city about an hour west of Toronto, is helping drive development in what were once downtrodden areas.
Mr. Murray points out that Hamilton has a bounty of young chefs who have gone out on their own and reinvigorated the city.
Harrison Hennick is the chef and co-owner of a handful of restaurants in Hamilton including Nique, which opened two years ago just off James St. N.
The restaurant scene has been a boon for most everyone in the area, he says, and the growth is continuing.
“I get a call from a prominent chef in Toronto at least once a month looking to come out here,” he says. “It’s happening.”
Of course, running a business has its peaks and valleys – no one from the Hamilton Mountain or the east or west ends comes downtown when the weather is poor, he says – he’s hopeful residential development will spur growth for his customer base.
“There’s not a lot of cities that could double its population in 10 years time, but I guarantee in 10 years the population is going to be over 1 million,” Mr. Hennick says.
“It’s quite a different place now,” says Jason Thorne, general manager of the City of Hamilton planning and economic development department.
“The art scene gave Hamilton a voice…And the food scene developed after that. It’s never that easy but the development of the local arts and culture scene was part of a catalyst for what we are seeing today.”
Mr. Thorne says the city is spurring development by offering grants and incentives for businesses willing to set up shop in various neighbourhoods, including Barton Village. Mr. Cowan took advantage of one such grant to get The Heather started.
Light-rail transit is also on the way. Condo projects are popping up where depressed buildings once sat.
“In the next five years, downtown Hamilton is going to look vastly different than how it looked over the last 20 years,” Mr. Thorne says.
Missing piece is large commercial
While food and culture are helping businesses in Hamilton’s downtown core, something’s still missing.
Hamilton needs a “monster” office deal to kick off even more development, says Doug Murray, vice-president of Colliers International’s Oakville-Burlington-Hamilton.
If an institutional property owner like Bentall Kennedy or Morguard made a deal with a large bank for 250,000-square-feet of office space, that would be “a game-changer,” he says.
“Several landlords are eyeing Hamilton very closely. It’s just a matter of time before it gets done,” he says. “Everything has been rip-roaring except for office leasing, but that’s next to come for sure.”
One of the big draws for large office tenants is easy access to great amenities, Mr. Murray says. Years ago, these facilities just weren’t available in Hamilton.
But that’s changing, says Mr. Murray, and it was triggered by the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene.
No longer Toronto’s ‘little brother’
Vittorio Colacitti, former contestant on TV show Top Chef Canada, says the reason people are coming downtown is because “it’s fun again.”
Mr. Colacitti is the chef and co-owner of three restaurants in Hamilton, including the celebrated Born & Raised, as well as a restaurant along Toronto’s trendy Queen St. West.
Hamilton has always been beautiful, Mr. Colacitti says, but now it’s becoming a good place for small businesses. High-rise condominium projects are about to get shovels in the ground, and he says University-aged people are deciding to stay downtown.
Long compared to nearby Toronto, Hamilton is having its own moment.
“The whole idea of Toronto being part of this growth is a misconception. It’s more important to focus on Hamilton building from within than being Toronto’s little brother,” Mr. Colacitti says. “It’s a distinction people want to make but I don’t think there are a lot of similarities. It’s what makes this city so unique.”
Back on Barton St., Mr. Cowan knows fellow chefs have had success in being part of the development in an area not far from The Heather. Although he’s seen some troublesome events unfold right outside his window – and sometimes, through his window – there is change afoot. For him, The Heather is a microcosm of downtown Hamilton as a whole: It serves a seasonal tasting menu, north of $100 per person, four nights a week yet it’s located just steps away from the Helping Hands Street Mission, where homeless go for help.
For Mr. Cowan it’s an example of how new businesses can breathe new life into a city and shed light on the hard work others are doing to help grow the city.
Despite the hiccups and setbacks, Mr. Cowan knows opening up shop in Hamilton was the right choice. As he looks out the window of his restaurant on Barton St., the spring rainfall stops. “I’m going nowhere.”