When ZenKitchen announced its sudden closure on May 23, it shocked the Ottawa vegan and foodie communities. Less than two weeks later, ZenKitchen is in the midst of a fundraising campaign aimed at re-opening. (Find out how to support ZenKitchen here and here.)
I met up with owner David Loan to find out where things stand.
PT: When we corresponded right after the announcement, it sounded to me like ZenKitchen was completely finished.
DL: Pamela, you’re absolutely correct. I thought I was finished, that ZenKitchen was finished. Everyone I spoke to said we were. When I got the news that our accounts had been frozen, and realized what that meant, I wept for two days straight. I was a mess, and I thought I had run out of options.
PT: There’s still hope, it seems. What happened?
DL: When we broke the news, I wasn’t rallying around myself; I was defeated. It’s the community that picked me up. In particular, the vegan community has shown a huge ground swell of support. I never could have predicted the community response; it’s been buoying and humbling.
PT: Did you know the shut down was coming?
DL: Not specifically, although we had been struggling. We had a very difficult fall period. It was like our customer base evaporated. To try to make it through, I skipped a few of my own pay cheques, and took on some side work so that I could afford to do so. I wish I’d asked for help sooner. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I realize now that other Ottawa restauranteurs were struggling as well.
PT: Are you out of the woods?
DL: No; I wish I could say we are. It’s going to depend on if we can get enough money raised to pay everyone, including CRA. Every day we’re closed there’s more debt added, so it’s a race against time. The next week is critical for the fundraising effort. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.
PT: Some people are wondering, if ZenKitchen wasn’t sustainable before, what will be different for the second go-round?
DL: That’s a fair question, and something to which I’m giving a lot of thought. I am speaking to one potential investor who would like to see us expand our seating a bit. We are serving to a full house most nights, so having some extra seating would be very helpful. We are also considering things like having a weekly pub night, maybe on a Monday or Tuesday, and moving to a Jazz lounge model once a week as well. We’re going to do a lot of experimentation, and are open to hearing ideas from our patrons.
PT: What do you think ZenKitchen does really, really well?
DL: We have a belief that everybody deserves to have good food. That includes vegans, celiacs, Buddhists, and people with allergies. Nobody looks after those people like we do. We are willing to offer personalized service, and people really appreciate that. The recent outpouring of support has really reminded me of the importance of that personal connection.
We are also really good at getting omnivores in, and changing their perception of vegan food.
PT: Some people have asked, if you’re not vegan, why do you own a vegan restaurant. Thoughts?
DL: Firstly, there wouldn’t be much point to having a vegetarian restaurant, because then it’s reliant on cheese. We enjoy the challenges that come with creating vegan cuisine. I’m vegetarian, and have been since 1999, for all the reasons there is to be one – animals, health, the environment. Veganism is something I believe in, I’ve just been too lazy to achieve it. Snacks are my downfall. It’s something I need to work on.
For what it’s worth, although only about 10% of our sales are to vegans, ZenKitchen is a 100% vegan space. Staff members aren’t allowed to have non-vegan food on the premises, under any circumstances. Since I spend most of my time there, I’m mostly vegan!
PT: What are some of the positive things to come out of this?
DL: Caroline (Ishii, David’s ex-partner and former ZenKitchen chef) has been very supportive. She’s been going out of her way to assist. I’m also grateful to Luis and Kim, who started the Go Fund Me campaign, and the chefs who have come forward wanting to put on the fundraiser in support of ZenKitchen, Auntie Loo is also incredibly supportive, and will be one of the featured chefs at the fundraiser. So many people have offered to help.
PT: Anything else you want people to know?
DL: A few things! Firstly, if you can’t keep a reservation, please call and cancel it. Restaurateurs would really appreciate that. We lose a lot of money from no-shows. We turn people away while holding a table for people who do not show up or even call. It’s really hard on our bottom line.
Also, don’t be afraid to drop in during the slower times, especially on a Monday or Tuesday. Most people in Ottawa make reservations for Friday and Saturday at 6:30 PM. We’re even happy if you come in later on and just have dessert! Oh and when we say we’re open until 2 PM for brunch, it actually means we’re taking our last seatings for 2 PM.
I want people to know that coming to ZenKitchen doesn’t always have to be a three-course experience. We just want you to come in, be comfortable, and eat something delicious.