Where walls once cracked and ceilings crumbled, colour and warmth now radiate from the big, old house at 555 Somerset West.
Millennial entrepreneurs Joe Beaton and Geneviève Bétournay have brought an all new energy to the three-story Victorian building across from Dundonald Park. First built prior to Canada’s Confederation in the 1860s, the aptly-named The Art House Café has quickly earned a positive rep as a solid new go-to for community, culture and more.
Inside, bright lights adorn each wall compelling you to explore the dozens of artistic treasures. Every carefully selected piece hails from a local creative professional living and working in the 613.
If you’re lonely and new to Ottawa, you’re bound to find some likeminded friends at any one of the café’s weekly creative meet-ups. These low-cost (often free) community gatherings are held nearly every night of the week and feature activities like clay sculpting, knitting and open mic poetry. The café and gift shop are both often open late into the evening – which means you can enjoy one of their kombucha bubble teas while getting creative. It’s all very chill.
Joe and Gen were kind enough to take some time out of their hectic schedules to sit down and talk shop with us.
Tell me what motivated you to open this café. What do you envision this business becoming?
Walking by this building 6 years ago is actually what inspired Joe. He saw it in its run down state and imagined the potential for it to be filled with the creative energy of artists working.
As the project grew, we saw more and more ways a place like this could encourage art and bring more of it to the community. We decided we wanted to be a place of joy and comfort; a home where knowledge, ideas, and skills are shared, and creative sparks ignite.
Since opening our doors, seeing and hearing what people want from the space has really helped guide us. We’ve allowed the community to tell us what they want from the space.
I really love the new hand-painted signs on the brick pillars outside. I noticed on Instagram that this was a bit of a team effort. What made you go the DIY route?
We wanted to stay with the aesthetic and theme of the house, and we were inspired by the painted sign in the driveway from the turn of the last century. It also fit within our budget!
Other cafés like the Daily Grind, Raw Sugar and Umi (may they rest in peace) all housed coffee drinkers, musicians, families, and artists alike over the years. How will the Art House Café do things differently? Or will you cater to folks in much the same way?
We are so lucky to have been preceded by such fine establishments. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t draw inspiration from them. That said, you might say we’re a little less restaurant and a little more art than the Grind.
We have lots of local artists (the most, actually) and a great deal of events. Plus strangers seem to connect here as neighbors; our guests are so laid back and gracious – even in line.
It feels a lot like a home here, but we’re also a place where you can work productively [if you’re a student or young professional on a laptop, for example].
A major fire devastated a block of businesses close to yours just two years ago. I’ve heard many Centretowners say that they’ve been longing for a new hangout to fill the void the fire left. In other words, there are some big shoes to fill. Have you heard that too?
That’s almost all we’ve heard since day one as well.
We definitely felt like people were hungry. It started to contribute to the energy of the space well before our doors were open. Almost 6 months after opening, we now have proper tables set up and our liquor license has finally come in, so we’re feeling more established.
As for the challenge of living up to expectations, much of the energy in those places came from the people who went there, and brought their art. People can and do bring their art and talent here, and it’s an honour to host it.
I really like your WiFi password (“Community”). Why did you choose that?
Community is really what built this place. On our opening day we needed a password and we needed it to be something easy to remember. We simply went with what seemed obvious.
I understand your café showcases a whole new series of work every season and that right now, your summer exhibition is in full swing. What can we expect from your next exhibition, and how does someone go about purchasing a piece?
In this first year of exhibitions, we decided to go with a broad theme of what the seasons inspire. The summer collection is bright – but also captures the warm, laid-back nature of the season.
To purchase a piece, simply come to the counter and we’ll fill out the paperwork while you stake your claim by putting a red ‘sold’ sticker on the tag.
Given the brutal job market for young people and all the negative stereotypes twenty and thirty somethings seem to face, it’s so great to see two millennials running a successful business. Have you received any generational pushback as young business owners? What impact has your age had on the café, if any?
People are pleasantly surprised to find that we’re the owners; usually they can tell through our enthusiasm. As always there is plenty of unsolicited advice, which we take for what it is and apply as we can. Generally the tone is less condescending and more congratulatory.
You’re running artistic workshops and meetups at the café every night of the week, it seems. What’s the story on these and how can folks get involved?
Opportunities for learning and always a good time, we’ve got an array of interactive meetups that we like to offer as often as possible.
In our regular events you can find poetry, fiber arts, life drawing, paint nights and clay nights, art workshops, jam sessions with live music, and the Summer in the City flea market.
There is plenty of room for drop-in but if you would like more information, you can refer to the Facebook event pages or refer to the calendar on our website.
What can we look forward to from The Art House Café in the coming weeks and months?
More of everything! We’ll be expanding our menu, hosting more music, live art events and workshops, and providing more services. We just launched our full line of printing services and we want to grow that part of the business.
Also you’ll want to be on the lookout for our upcoming Special Exhibitions that start in September. There will be two-week solo or group artist exhibitions that hang in the drawing room. If you’re a local artist, be sure to apply now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.