When people hear the word entrepreneur, most recall successful examples: Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Mark Zucherberg or Jack Dorsey. Rare are the stories of hardship and failure, or the fact that you are more likely to fail as a business than succeed.
Birds of a Feather Can Do Business Better
When you combine the time and energy it takes to run a business, the low success-rate of new restaurants, working in a male-dominated industry and pioneering a brand in a city that was still a kept secret, Erin Dunham is the real deal. Where most businesses fail, Erin and her partner Matt Kershaw’s The Other Bird restaurant group seems to stack upon their success. With seven restaurants under their umbrella (including the Arlington Hotel in Paris, Ontario and Burro in Burlington), there is no turning back for this ambitious entrepreneur. People of Hamilton had the opportunity to speak with Erin and discuss the growth of The Other Bird and the recipe for a successful business in Hamilton. Here it is: uncensored.
Erin’s two lovely Bernese mountain dogs Sampson and Bruce joined us for the interview. Both playful and powerful, they are fitting companions for a fierce woman like Erin Dunham. Much like her tough pups, she is a straight up Hamilton business owner who admits that she has a lack of censorship when it comes to talking about her passion. In a business world, being an outspoken successful business woman can be challenging.
Talking about a Hamilton food scene
How do you stay positive under pressure while running multiple restaurants?
Erin: The staying positive part is easy. Our staff are awesome and customers are awesome most of the time. It’s super easy to stay positive because so many great people are backing you to succeed.
What are your favourite parts of the city?
Erin: The natural amazingness of Hamilton. The trails, the waterfront and the golf.
What makes Hamilton different?
Erin: When I walk down Toronto everybody is looking down. No one engages you the way people do down here. Even at a busy time downtown someone recognizes you and acknowledges. It still has that small town feel, you know?
How long have you lived within the Hamilton community?
Erin: I am born and raised in Hamilton. I’ve lived in the country. I’ve busted downtown to go to school, had different friends from different backgrounds. I think it’s good. It teaches you at a young age to adapt and learn how to deal with diversity.
How did country life influence you as a restaurant owner?
Erin: You appreciate food. Wasting food, or where wheat comes from. It’s shocking to me how few people have ever seen a live pig. They take bacon home without any concept of the life of the pig. The birth of the pig. The death of the pig. The processing. It’s a cool dynamic when you grow up on a farm.
On the community
“You have this opportunity to make such a difference. To influence people. We’re aligned with the YWCA Recipe for Change. It’s about 60 women in transitional living who can’t eat everyday, and I think that’s an absolute fucking tragedy because there are 40 restaurants within 5 blocks of there. Which is crazy, right?”
Recently your business received negative feedback on Facebook for some wording you used to describe gluten free menu items. Can we talk about that?
Erin: You can’t make everyone happy all the time.
You gotta make tough decisions. Sometimes people don’t like you.
Erin: So we used the word “Glutarded” on our website. The word glutard is not retard, it has the same final letters. It means to go slowly, or be late behind, which is exactly what our stomachs do when we have celiac disease and can’t digest things. So the first time I heard that word I thought, “That’s awesome. Thank you for creating this thing so I don’t have to go around saying I have fucking celiac disease.” It’s an embarrassing thing. It’s hard to eat, hard to deal with, hard to talk about. We were attacked over using that word.
So what happened?
Erin: In business, you have to put your personal feelings aside.
So you took it out?
Erin: Yeah, we did. To be quite honest, there was one woman who was very respectful about it. Have a conversation. But you don’t have to do that online and bully us. Call us. The method of which the group used was shitty. We received a bunch of negative reviews on our business online, but we have enough positive that it didn’t move our rating much.
It’s so easy to go out and make bad reviews about a business to try and tank them. How do you deal with that in the restaurant industry? I’m thinking about South Park and the Yelp episode. The subtext that “If you don’t give us free food we’re gonna give you a negative review, blah blah blah…” Food bloggers can hurt a business. How do you deal with it?
Erin: I have a couple close friends that are food bloggers. I’m not friends with them because they are food bloggers, I’m friends with them AND they are food bloggers. I think there are different types of bloggers. There are some that have no history in food. They are not chefs but they eat food so they think they are an expert. So those people I take a bit of a issue with when they go to a restaurant and say, “I didn’t like the way they garnished the plate.” You don’t have a right to comment on that! When you start acting like a food critic with no experience, going around reviewing people, who the fuck are you? I understand if you go and you don’t like the food because… Absolutely, everybody has the right to do that and not everybody is going to like everything. But when you start acting like you’re a food critic with absolutely no experience, that’s like me becoming a critic in construction. Like going around, reviewing people on how they do construction. I don’t know anything about construction, who the fuck am I? The one’s I am frustrated with are the ones that go around trashing places and they don’t know what they are talking about.
I’ve watched some 10 second snap chat videos with bloggers saying “Went to such-and-such restaurant. Don’t eat there!” Does that online influencer rhetoric actually help anything?
Erin: That doesn’t say anything and also it doesn’t give the owner the opportunity to be better. Like, if you aren’t an asshole, instead of blowing up online why don’t you send a letter to the owner or to the manager and give them the opportunity to make things better. Before blasting them online.
A food blogger isn’t making a living off this.
Erin: We don’t go into their workplaces and strip them down. I don’t think people understand how much that really hurts us. And I don’t mean hurts us monetarily. It really hurts my feelings when people are shitty online. There is nothing wrong with sharing your experience but don’t go around saying you are an expert in a field that you’re not.
Tipping in the Business
I used to be a server in Hamilton and we were not allowed to keep tips. They all went to the house, which was a real bummer to try and earn more money. With the recent law changes in tipping, how do you feel about restaurants taking tips from servers?
Erin: We do take a percentage. But that is used to pay for all the uniforms, you never pay for glassware, we pay for everything for the staff – they have no expenses. That’s our way of alleviating that. And we’re very open about it. Small restaurants practice this, its not crazy. When I was serving it was higher, now it’s going lower, but it covers those costs.
So what about the case of Mario Batali getting sued for 5.25 million?
Erin: It’s different if you’re taking that money and not putting it back into the business, and that’s where the laws come in. They protect the servers tip pool from paying for the chef or the CEO. It looks sketchy and it seems weird, but when people are tipping out, the extra money goes to the kitchen and the chef – people who are helping and supporting you. It’s going to the runners, the hostesses. The problem is when the business isn’t giving that out and they just push it upwards.
I like that your business model takes the profit and builds on your empire. It’s like you are doubling down on The Other Bird every time a new restaurant launches.
Erin: It’s just reinvestment into yourself rather than stocks and bonds. Our return is a lot higher.
Learning from Failure
I want to talk about learning from failure. People are afraid of failure. The restaurant industry is notorious for businesses not making it beyond that critical one year point. What can you say about failure as far as pushing you to be a stronger person? How to you handle it when the odds are against you in this industry? What’s your favourite failure?
Erin: So, the place I grew up in in the restaurant industry was open 25 years. It was one of those popular great places that was a great money maker. It got to the point where it had the same food for the last 10 years. People would go because they liked the same thing. But the décor was old and the uniforms were old. Clientele drops off and slowly it dies. I never want to go down like that. So recently we just came on to six years with The Alex which was our first place. It wasn’t dying, but it wasn’t booming – and we like to boom. We just weren’t in that marketplace anymore. So right now we are in the middle of construction to switch it over for a totally different demographic in Burlington. We’re taking it down from casual fine dining because there are so many of those places, so we’re doing a fun cool Taco tequila Bourbon place (modeled off The Mule in Hamilton) so it’s not a failure. Just like being in business for 25 years is not a failure, it’s a fucking success. It’s just your measure of failure, and to me, that measure is letting a restaurant fade away and die from neglect.
Can you give me another example of facing failure?
Erin: Ottawa St. was predicted to be a bumpin’ new place and a bunch of food places opened and I know it’s hard for everyone. Right now, there isn’t the demand there we expected so we have to be on top of things. We amalgamated our two places on Ottawa Street to be one. You make choices quickly before it effects your business and effects your employees. Failure is when you let people down you work with; your staff, when you cut back their shifts or negatively affect someone who relies on you to live their life. And I think being forgotten is a massive failure. So many places go too long without refreshing or investing their entire life to holding on to something that is not working. Anyone who opens a restaurant is a fucking passionate person or an idiot. Or a passionate idiot! To succeed and keep your head above water, our industry is super hard, so it’s a matter of making those decisions quickly.
Social Media for Foodies
You have some of the most interesting social media personas in Hamilton business. What is your recommendation for restaurants looking to spend on marketing?
Erin: So this is interesting. I have a very different business. Up until recently, we had a zero budget for marketing. It was only social media and we have very distinct personalities for each place. It’s like a family and they talk to each other and people respond really well to that. But to be quite honest- most of our marketing dollars go towards charity. I’m actually a pretty bad example because I don’t give money towards marketing.
That’s crazy though! How do you grow your business without marketing?
Erin: Well for us word of mouth is everything. Giving good service and food when you can. Obviously things are going to go wrong, the human error, bad reviews or whatever. But generally speaking, people like us and they talk about us and they send new people to us. We have a beautiful bunch of amazing regulars that support us. Sometimes we cover their bills, give them stuff or gift cards as a thank you for being here with us.
So I guess instead of paying an agency to sell, you just reward your customers and your staff? That’s awesome.
Erin: Maybe its not the best way, but it’s how we do it.
Are there any other projects we should be on the look out from The Other Bird?
Erin: Recently we launched a magazine called Bird as an outlet for our staff to have a voice and tell their stories. My background is in writing and English so it’s like I needed to put it out there. It’s all our staff and other people in the industry writing stories. I guess that’s the closest to marketing we do.
— The Mule (@TheMuleTacos) September 22, 2016
Fact: relationships are 71% more successful when first dates happen at our place. It has something to do with the oysters. Or the booze. — Two Black Sheep (@2xBlackSheep) August 9, 2016
If you like vegetarian food, come see us tonight.
If you like answering questions for prizes, go see @except4kenneth tonight.
— Rapscallion Resto (@rapscallionRest) August 15, 2016
How do you balance your responsibilities to give back?
Erin: It’s not even community based or charity based, but the people who work for you too. Treating them like people and respecting them, respecting what they do is a huge thing for us. We try to hire people that want this as their career.
What is the recipe for success in this industry then? I’m guessing here: humanity?
Erin: Don’t be shitty to your employees. Even if it costs us a little more, we try not to be shitty. Oh sure we could cut this place, cut some jobs, but we always follow the least shitty route for people.
So one last question.
Why is your dog named Bruce?
Erin: If you can tell me one Bruce that isn’t awesome. Bruce Wayne. Bruce Banner. Bruce Campbell. Give me a Bruce!
My head starts to wander, going through all the encounters with any Bruce I can imagine. I think of trees. I’ve never actually thought of a Bruce before this moment. As our interview was coming to a close, I stuttered and scrambled the first Bruce that came to mind.
Justin: Bruce Springsteen!
Erin: See? Every Bruce is awesome!
The Other Bird is doing the restaurant industry differently. They are not following the textbook path to success or the typical business model. Business is done on their terms. They run entirely on passion, good entrepreneurship, and some luck. They have been successful because they are determined, focused, and really organized.
I asked Erin to sum up her success before we wrapped the interview up.
“We accidentally made money this year, what do you want to do with it? Open another restaurant? Okay, sounds great!”