When the much-loved Pomeroy House restaurant suddenly, and unexpectedly, closed in mid-August, stranding diners with reservations for dinner, food lovers and those in the restaurant industry in Ottawa were disappointed.
Then, as the news got out that chef Rich Wilson and the entire team was let go with just a few hours notice, the disappointment turned to shock. Wilson was a part owner in the restaurant, along with restaurateur Ion Aimers. How is it that a chef-owner can be let go?
Wilson is not the first to fall out with Aimers, a well-known angel investor in Ottawa restaurants. Wilson is just one of many bodies that litter the dining scene in this city. From chefs and owners to managers and servers, there are plenty of people in the industry who feel they have come off worse for their involvement with an establishment backed by Aimers.
However, you don’t close a restaurant that’s making money, and you certainly don’t open a restaurant as a charitable project. It’s a risky and expensive proposition, and as Aimers pointed out in a recent interview, “The Pomeroy House had not been making money for a long time, in fact it had been bleeding profusely. At a certain point you have to put an end to it, and there’s always going to be a group of people who are unhappy.”
The Aimers Effect
Aimers founded, and was the owner of, The Works Gourmet burger chain, which he sold in 2010 for a purported $10 million. Since that time, he has helped launch multiple food businesses across the city. In 2015, as Peter Hum pointed out in an article for The Ottawa Citizen, Aimers had a hand in opening Muckleston & Brockwell, a butcher in New Edinburgh, The Pomeroy House and The Rowan on Bank Street, and Arlington 5, a coffee shop in Centretown. He had existing relationships with Wilf and Ada’s, a hipster diner at Bank and Arlington, and Fraser Café, a neighbourhood favourite still going strong in New Edinburgh. At one point he also owned ZaZaZa Pizza, with three locations across Ottawa. But first the New Edinburgh location closed, then the Bank Street location transformed into The Rowan, and the third location on Wellington was briefly the home of Ola Cocina, the Vanier Mexican restaurant owned and run by Donna Chevrier.
Chevrier, who still runs her original restaurant in Vanier, says he’s left her life and work in shreds. As a condition of Chevrier’s settlement, she has been bound by a gag order, but Frank Magazine laid out the situation concerning the Wellington Street location pretty clearly in a 2017 article (which also noted that Aimers has been sued by Dawn Collings, one of the original partners of Muckleston & Brockwell.
In short, Chevrier went into partnership with Aimers to open a second location for the wildly popular Ola Cocina. According to Frank Magazine, under the terms of their agreement, she invested $50,000 and contributed her recipes, creativity, and branding. She worked long hours to transform the former pizza joint into a Mexican getaway, and Aimers took over the financial management. But soon enough their relationship soured and she was squeezed out. Though Aimers disputes the notion that he intentionally locked her out of the Hintonburg location, he admits the locks were the changed. “But that’s normal with any changing of the guard,” he says.
All Chevrier will say about the whole experience now is that it is causing her on-going misery. And it’s perfectly obvious when talking to her that she has been traumatized, to say nothing of having been brought to the edge of financial ruin. Luckily, the original Ola Cocina in Vanier has a clientele of loyal customers.
Not so for the short-lived location on Wellington. “I was the head chef at Ola Cocina while Donna was still there,” says Erika Newman.
This was Newman’s first job in the restaurant business in Ottawa. It came as a nasty shock. “In those first three weeks, I worked between 250 and 280 hours. I asked for 44 hours of overtime pay and he refused to pay me,” says Newman. She says he offered her a $200 bonus.
So she quit and made a complaint to Employment Standards for over $2,000 owed. It took nine months, but eventually she got paid. However, Aimers hadn’t finished with Newman. “He had the audacity to stop a payment on a Ministry of Labour cheque,” she says. Newman fought for it and eventually got the money; shortly after, Aimers sent her a text, she says, that read, “I’m glad we both got what we wanted.”
“It’s as if he wanted to make it seem like everything was just fine,” says Newman, “but I don’t know how he gets away with it. He’s completely crude and it doesn’t appear to affect him emotionally.”
Ivan Gedz, co-owner of Union Local 613 and Jabberwocky, is a famously outspoken member of the Ottawa restaurant industry. While he has never worked with Aimers, Gedz says Aimers is not alone in treating his staff poorly. He says there are plenty of other perpetrators across Ottawa’s fine dining scene that do not reward their staff fairly.
There is one former business partner who has not fallen out with Aimers. Jessie Duffy, former co-owner of Wilf and Ada’s, became fast friends with him when she worked at Fraser Café. She approached him with a business plan and became a 33 per cent partner in the business with her former partner Dominic Paul. “Our working relationship wasn’t bad,” says Duffy, “but we were paying ourselves a very minimal wage, I was barely making rent, working all hours and, financially, the light at the end of the tunnel was barely a flicker.” In 2016, Duffy walked away, exhausted, “but there was no ill will,” she says.
And these days, Wilf and Ada’s is doing very nicely, says Aimers. As pricier restaurants in Ottawa flounder, in large part due to rising costs following the minimum wage hike, Wilf and Ada’s hits the sweet spot of a mid-price point, hip, and casual.
More to Fall?
Back to The Pomeroy House. Wilson and his partner Lindsay, who used to run front of house, have lost their entire investment in the restaurant that they hoped would sustain them for years. Aimers, for his part, is conflicted.
“I’m devastated by the whole thing,” he says. “I have a major investment in The Pomeroy House and nobody stands to lose more than me. Rich is a genius in the kitchen and I still think that they are two of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. But there’s always going to be a group of people who are unhappy. I’ve tried to be very careful to take care of severance pay and make sure the needs of the staff are legally met. I’ve done it as morally and ethically as possible.”
Wilson is tight lipped, because he’s still hoping to recuperate monies owed.
Both Aimers and Gedz agree on one thing. The closure of The Pomeroy House will not be the last of the upper end dining establishments to close in Ottawa in the coming months. “We are going to see a contraction in the market,” says Gedz, “because consumers are becoming much more price-sensitive. When so many social media posts ask for dining recommendations with the words ‘reasonably priced,’ it’s an indication that people feel that dining out has become too expensive.”