Three years ago, Kristen Chemerika-Lew was seven months’ pregnant when she and her partner Kyle Lew signed a lease to take over the space occupied by a longtime pizza place on Winnipeg’s Waterloo Street.
By Lawrence Herzog
She was 29; he was 27. “Our son Charlie was born that June, and we opened in August. It was chaos, but we made it work.”
Chemerika and Lew coalesced their last names into Chew, redecorated and reconfigured, installed 21 seats, and began dazzling palates in the River Heights neighbourhood. Local diners embraced their contemporary, sophisticated approach, and now the couple has opened an adjacent bakery, The Store Next Door, which serves up baked goods and prepared foods for customers to take away.
They’re both working six days a week, invigorated by the craft of cooking, the enthusiasm of their loyal customers, and the sense of community they’ve built in just two years. “If customers like what they get, they tell their friends, and Winnipeg really works on word of mouth,” Kristen says. “Winnipeg is a big city that has no idea it’s a big city. River Heights has been a really supportive neighbourhood, and we just love it here.”
Tips to chew on for small startups
- Think local, start small. Nurture local relationships and repeat business. “We use local ingredients when they are in season because they are the best, and we believe in giving our customers the best we can,” Kristen says. “Not everything we use is local or organic, but we try wherever possible to support Manitoba farmers and suppliers who are starting out just like us.”
- Keep your menus moving. What’s on the menu on any given day is determined by what comes through the door – be it Cornish hen, wild mushrooms, bison tenderloin, pickerel or parsnips. “We love that excitement of cooking with the seasons, of keeping it moving, of surprising our customers with something new,” Kyle says. “We’re rather impulsive. If one of our suppliers walks in the door with something fun, we do our best to change our menu that night to showcase it at its freshest, at its peak.”
- Watch your budget closely when starting out. The couple bought all their equipment second hand or on sale. “My Aunt Marjie picked the paint colours and Kyle and I decorated with items we found aesthetically pleasing — and affordable,” Kristen says. “All of our tables were made by a former staff member who wanted to get his feet wet with woodworking.”
- Create a business plan and work the plan. Kyle and Kristen diligently implemented their business plan, and hoped it would work. “There is no such thing as too much planning time – but there will always be scenarios that you didn’t account for and you have to be prepared to adapt and adjust,” Kristen says.
- Watch your costs. Buy fresh and local as much you can, Kristen recommends, and be prepared for extras to come. “There will always be costs that surprise or that you forgot to include in your planning, so have a contingency in your budget.”