Rob Begin’s eyes well up with tears when he reflects on the three-year journey he and his wife Danielle have been on to get their new St. Davids restaurant off the ground.
Standing inside the converted barn at 78 Four Mile Creek Road, it’s clear to any onlooker that The Grist is truly a labour of love for the couple.
“This has been a really difficult project,” Rob says. Danielle, he adds, “has helped with every single aspect of it. Had I not had her support with this whole thing, we would have never gotten to the stage we’re at now.”
What stage are they at? The couple is almost ready to open the doors to The Grist, which promises a fun, casual dining atmosphere along with an on-site brewery in what Danielle calls a rustic modern interior.
They’ve gone to great lengths to honour the roots of the barn, once used as a fruit packing shed by the Fedorkow family, who farmed 60 acres now mostly occupied by a subdivision. The walls of The Grist are decorated with wood slats and panels repurposed from the original building, while the elaborate custom lighting and bright red, state-of-the-art pizza oven provide a modern contrast.
Three years ago Rob decided to leave a successful job in sales with Niagara Falls brewery equipment manufacturer Criveller Company of Canada to take this leap of faith.
“I had a great career,” he says. “I left at the height of my sales. You can imagine what level of commitment that is to walk away from your best year ever after 24 years.”
Begin admits, though, that the success he was achieving helping other aspiring brewers and restaurateurs realize their dreams pushed him to move forward with his own venture.
“I realized I wasn’t happy anymore,” he adds, “and money became less important to me than our quality of life. After a while you say to yourself, ‘am I prepared to keep going down this path and making the same money, or do we change everything in our life?’”
Change everything they did. They sold their NOTL house and, as they say on their website, they decided to blow every bit of their kids’ inheritance, to finance the purchase of the barn. The couple now rents a home and spends 70 to 80 hours a week at the restaurant, preparing for that moment when they can open.
The Begins are reentering the Niagara-on-the-Lake culinary landscape after selling their previous local eatery, Garciolli’s, in 1997. Located in the Mary Street plaza that now houses The Sand Trap, Garciolli’s was well-known for their pleasant, friendly atmosphere and for selling gourmet white pizzas long before they became trendy.
The experience they gained back then, combined with the knowledge Rob has acquired over more than two decades with Criveller, have definitely informed the new venture.
Though The Grist will offer a full menu, the focus will be primarily on pizzas and items that complement that staple. Those who remember Garciolli’s will perhaps recognize some of their old favourites.
“There are several pizzas that we did remarkably well (at Garciolli’s),” claims Rob. “We’ll be bringing them back in their new format. Life has changed a lot in 24 years. We have to change some of the things we did back then and improve upon them. But we are going to incorporate some of the original recipes in a new way.”
On the beverage side, The Grist will offer four main brews when they open: a Secord stout, a red cream ale, an Italian pilsner and an IPA called Burning Down the House, which honours the history of St. Davids during the War of 1812. Those will be complemented by four or five seasonal brews, as well as some guest taps reserved for other local brewers.
Other drinks will include local wines. In fact, the day The Local visited The Grist, the Begins had just returned from a tasting at Queenston Mile Vineyard in an effort to curate their final wine list.
The couple, who have been married for 28 years, have taken inspiration from many different sources for the design of the restaurant. They point to a few eateries they frequented while they spent time in Florida, places where the atmosphere was so great, they couldn’t wait to go back with their daughters Devin and Brooklynn, both now in their mid-twenties.
The interior design was all in Rob’s head, Danielle says. “He’s got a vision that most don’t see, and it’s come to fruition.”
Rob says he wanted to do something that was different, where every wall has some character to it. Surprises abound in every corner. The staircase to the second floor loft, for example, features slats from old barrels basket-weaved together. Even the men’s room features a support beam and doors repurposed from the old barn interior. It’s obvious that much thought has gone into every detail.
That loft features a full bar area and a bandstand, with a capacity of 50, while the main floor can seat 90 at booths and tables, with another full bar looking out upon Four Mile Creek Road. And it will be easy to look out from various parts of the restaurant, with the many garage doors open during the summer months.
Besides the barn, the Begins also restored another farm building on the lot. The Fedorkows’ old tractor garage and maintenance shed will play a big role in the second phase of The Grist, when they plan to open a coffee shop and Italian ice creamery to complement the restaurant. There is another 1,000 square feet of space there they hope to rent out to create another reason for their venture to become a destination for locals and tourists alike.
If the buzz created by all the action on the site is any indication, locals are ready to try out the latest new eatery in NOTL.
“We knocked on every single door to let the neighbours know what we were planning to do,” Rob says. “Every one of them was phenomenally nice to us. Since then they’ve been our biggest supporters all the way through, showing up with coffee and doughnuts. And the Fedorkows, who still live next door, have helped us with stuff that was part of the barn.”
They didn’t expect the process to take so long, but the pandemic has obviously created a road block of sorts. It’s forced them to think about scaling down their menu a bit for a potentially smaller COVID-related capacity, and it’s created a bit of stress at times. But Danielle says it’s probably better that they weren’t able to open before the pandemic, and then forced to shut down, as the overhead would have been that much more expensive.
And she is full of admiration for her husband, who has acted as his own contractor, overseeing everything every step of the way. “He’s been here every second of every day, in freezing cold, no heat,” adds Danielle. “It may have made for a long process, but he’s been here to see it all through.”
“We have a great relationship,” says Rob. “She’s fantastic. You couldn’t ask for a better person. When we get out of this thing (the pandemic) it’ll make us only stronger. We’ve actually gained strength in all of the difficulty that we’ve gone through. It actually strengthened our relationship.”
He adds, “if we’re able to do this, and still have this kind of connection, when we open up it’s going to be that much sweeter. It’s really been a godsend.”
And when they finally do open the doors, you can expect Rob and Danielle to be there each and every day, happily welcoming guests and ensuring they experience a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.