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Sunday, March 3, 2024
True Grist: Entrepreneurial family builds a new business on an old foundation

If Robert Begin had a personal mantra it would be: “Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.”

Part of Rob Begin’s story is that he and his wife of 25 years, Danielle, are in the midst of resurrecting an old fruit packing house on Four Mile Creek Road, just north of Highway 405 in St. Davids, and turning it into a state-of-the-art restaurant and brewery.

But perhaps the more interesting part of the story is how Begin is realizing his lifelong fascination with business creativity and entrepreneurship.

Now 49, he grew up on the Third Line in Virgil, just where it crosses Creek Road. He attended Denis Morris High School in St. Catharines. At the age of 18, he was on his way to the University of Toronto, when a friend said: “Hey, let’s open a pizza place on Martindale Road in St. Catharines.”

As young people are wont to do, Begin chose action over education.

The new business did well. “It was just a small take-out place on Martindale Road,” Begin says, proud of his success. “But we did phenomenally well, paying off our loans within a year.”

By his early 20s, Begin had sold the St. Catharines business, married Danielle, and opened a new restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Longtime locals will fondly remember Garciolli’s, on Mary Street, where the Sandtrap is now, for its gourmet pizzas. It was so popular, Begin won the Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year after only a year of operation.

Begin attributes his love of “risk takers and dream makers” to his father, Reg, a General Motors executive, and two-term Niagara-on-the-Lake councillor. Now retired, living part of the year on the Parkway and part in Florida, Reg instilled a sense of business adventure in his son.

“I was always like my father. He has an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Begin. “Before General Motors, he and my mother opened a small retail store in St. Catharines, selling children’s clothes.”

After five successful years at Garciolli’s, the Begins sold the restaurant to a very satisfied former customer.

Some might say Begin’s next career choice — 25 years working for the Criveller Group, a Niagara Falls firm specializing in winery and brewery equipment — took him away from his entrepreneurial heart.

Not so, according to Begin.

He travelled all over the world, sometimes 20 weeks a year, giving breath to the fledgling craft beverage industry. He helped design, build and install many of the world’s small, brewing, winery and distilling systems — even olive oil presses.

“I was always around these entrepreneurs,” says Begin. “Around people who were building things. They had a dream and were prepared to take a risk. I was part of their process.”

After 25 years with Criveller, Begin was tired of the constant travel and missed Danielle and their two daughters, Devin and Brooklynn.

The family decided to bring together his two longtime passions: restaurants and breweries.

As the new home for their business dreams, Rob and Danielle coveted the old Fedorkow packing house, the last small part of a once 60-acre tender fruit farm. They had always been intrigued by the building, now a bit of an anomaly, surrounded by new subdivision houses.

But it was not for sale.

So, they searched public records to find out the property was still owned by the Fedorkow family. A brief back and forth to explain their hopes for the historic building and the Begins became the proud owners.

John Fedorkow, a grape grower and the current Niagara Grape King, and his sister, Elizabeth, who now lives right next door to the would-be restaurant/brewery, loved Rob and Danielle’s ideas.

Elizabeth couldn’t be happier. “We are just ecstatic they’re bringing the old building back to life,” she says. “They are such great neighbours.”

Begin admits it is a rocky time to start a new business, especially one in the hospitality sector.

“If I opened just a restaurant, in this day and age, I would fail. If I opened just a brewery, I would go out of business. What we’re trying to do is a little bit of both, not too big in either business. A balance.”

To make it happen, like most entrepreneurs, the Begins had to say, “in for a penny in for a pound.”

“We sold our house, really everything, to complete this project on our own, without financial or investor support.”

Danielle, 48, gulps a bit as she describes the family commitment. “I’m a bit of a Nervous Nellie,” she admits. “But it has always been in him to do it again and do it better.

“Back in the day, we worked together 24/7 and we did it really well. Now we’ll do it again. If it is going to succeed, it will take the whole family.”

Begin agrees that their success will depend, at least in part, on their personal attention to detail. “If we’re open 80 hours, we’ll be there every hour.”

“We also have a history in Niagara-on-the-Lake to begin with. That’s a platform for us to start from,” he counts their success factors on his fingers.

“We’re really investing in the community, not just opening a restaurant or brewery.” He expects to have around 20 employees.

Another finger: “We’ll be drawing on the St. Davids historic brewing tradition, recalling days of the town’s first brewery, Sleeman’s. It started here as the Stamford Springs Brewery in 1834.”

He counts their new brewer, a graduate of Niagara College, as a real strength, too. “He’s had a lot of experience, including brewing the first beers for the Wayne Gretzky craft brewery.

Begin shies away from talking too much about specifics. He’s really not being coy, but he doesn’t seem to want to give too much away until The Grist, craft kitchen and brewery, (see www.thegrist.ca) opens later in the year.

He offers a few hints: “small, unique atmosphere, very intimate and cozy. With a wonderful story behind it.”

He thinks it is important to be right-sized. The brewing system will be small—he calls it a Tonka Toy, referring to the 70-year-old manufacturer of small toy trucks. “It will look great and give us lots of flexibility. And if we need to grow, we have a large old barn.”

From the sounds of it, they may just need the barn.

Remember that subdivision, surrounding The Grist? Every day Begin’s new neighbours stop by asking for news of the opening. They love the idea of walking to their friendly neighbourhood brewery …

A real supporter of the new business, John Fedorkow has already booked his recreational hockey team for weekly post-game gatherings in the upstairs lounge.

Rob Begin has the charged demeanor of an entrepreneur on a mission. You can virtually see ideas churning in his mind. He infects those around him with his energy.

It’s a kind of damn-the-torpedoes approach to life. And a smile is never far away.

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