What is Mellos?
For many, it’s an idea, a community. It’s the floors, the food, the staff. It’s the big shark on the wall above the bar and the chandelier hanging above the entrance. It’s the sign, which is a legit heritage piece. And it’s a place to get a damn good breakfast.
But all this is on the line now that Mellos faces an uncertain future in Ottawa — a topic that sparked a social-media firestorm earlier this week. Neighbouring restaurant Ace Mercado is set to take over the lease from Mellos, something not everyone is happy about.
My first time at Mellos was just over three years ago. As a self-proclaimed breakfast aficionado, my friend took me, claiming that I hadn’t had breakfast in Ottawa until I had had it at Mellos.
“It’s the oldest diner in the Market,” he told me.
We were served by the lovely Leisa Bell. I consider this fortunate as Bell, who was a key figure in the restaurant’s history, died in January 2014 from a brain aneurysm.
Current owner Martin Fremeth initially bought Mellos when Bell, a server at the time, told him her dream of running the resto. They talked for a few weeks and Fremeth decided to dive into the business, leaving Bell to manage it. Since her passing, Fremeth brought his son and daughter-in-law from Toronto to take over managing.
This morning, I had breakfast at Mellos and asked diners what they made of the situation between Mellos and Ace Mercado. Most hoped Mellos would be able to stay on at its current location.
I approached two gentlemen sitting in one of the small signature booths, one of whom had been coming since the ’80s, the other since the ’70s. They work together and hadn’t been in a while, but came in today to show their support and have a coffee. If Ace does take over, they said, they won’t be coming back.
I heard a snippet of conversation between the server and someone who is an obvious regular. “I mean, we’re still thriving right?” she said.
She was talking to Yannick Beauvalet, owner of L’Hexagone Menswear located just down the street from Mellos.
Beauvalet said he doesn’t think the issue is with Ace, adding that he is heartened by the community’s response.
“What’s amazing is to see the community support,” he explained. “I’ve been coming here since I was 18, I spent Christmas Eve here with the hookers. I used to live upstairs, and now I have a business down the street. My 10-year-old said, ‘I’ll give them $100 if that will help.’ That’s the impact Mellos has.”
Community support has been outstanding. The online petition to save Mellos has gathered more than 2,000 signatures, popular bloggers Don and Jenn Chow of Foodie Prints have been very public about their support, as well as Petit Bill’s owner Randy Fitzpatrick, and Lowertown Community Association president Liz Bernstein.
“She is still going to fight for us,” says server Deedee Ruda of Liz Bernstein.
Ruda told me the relationship with Ace had always been that of friendly neighbours, borrowing ingredients from each other in a pinch. “We would normally feed their staff everyday. Then October rolled around and we saw them less.”
For its part, ACE Mercado took to Facebook to address concerns about the fate of Mellos.
“Ace Mercado is a small local business owned by proudly bilingual partners who were born and raised in Ottawa, and who have worked and lived in Ottawa their whole lives. Our plan is to maintain the Diner’s historical and cultural significance, just as past ownership groups have done,” the restaurant said in their Facebook post. “We have complete faith that Ottawa residents and longtime Mellos enthusiasts will support our desire in keeping the diner’s identity intact. As local business owners in the Lowertown area, we want to continue to contribute to its ongoing revitalization.”
The company also announced it would keep the current staff and only make minor changes to the restaurant.
One of the Mellos chefs laughed at this comment and said if Ace takes over, none of the staff here plans to stay.
I asked owner Martin Fremeth why it might matter to the landlord who would take over.
“Maybe they think Ace’ll put more money into the place. Redo the floors. But I bought this place for what it was,” he said.
Another diner, Robyn Louck, is moving to Toronto tomorrow morning, but said she will stop by before heading out to get one more breakfast to go and grab a T-shirt that Mellos will be selling for $10 to promote the neighbourly feeling it once shared with Ace Mercado.
“Generations have come here,” Fremeth said. “We want to stay neighbours, but we want to stay.”
Fremeth said he has no plans to venture into any other sort of restaurant should he actually lose Mellos at the end of December.
As of yesterday, the landlord indicated that a business decision had been made and they are not budging on it.
But Fremeth remains hopeful. “We’ve still got some time, I’ve taken it to a lawyer, and the community support has been huge.”