The story behind the name Heartbreakers Pizza involves a bit of gallows humour. “It’s a little Mariah Carey, a little Tom Petty,” says owner Juliana Graf. “Everyone who’s ever opened a restaurant knows that along the way, there’s always some heartbreak.”
Most restaurants, however, are open more than a week before a pandemic shuts them down to rethink their entire business plan.
Getting through these extraordinary times takes grit. Luckily, Heartbreakers has that in spades. It’s run by a small team of dedicated hard workers, led by an unflappable trio. There’s Graf, whose duties include curating the natural wine list, making pizzas, and doing whatever else needs doing in a fledgling restaurant. She is joined by her partner in both business and life, Andrew Chatham, Heartbreakers’ chef and co-owner. They previously owned the Fieldhouse in Perth. When they decided their heart’s desire was to make pizza in Ottawa, among their friends and families, they enlisted the final member of their trifecta: Chatham’s sister Lizzie, who runs the front of the house.
Located at 465 Parkdale Avenue, the former home of Blumenstudio, the first hurdle to jump was transforming a former flower/coffee shop into a charming neighbourhood pizza and wine bar. “It was a lot harder than we thought, and we thought we knew how hard it was going to be,” says Graf.
With the end of renovations in sight, Graf recalls only having $27 left in her bank account. “We had to really stretch things,” she says. “We sold our outdoor tool trailer, so our wine cellar is doubling up as a makeshift shed even now.”
All the struggles were momentarily forgotten on March 6, when Heartbreakers finally opened its doors to the waiting public. Partially due to the good standing that the Chathams and Graf have within Ottawa’s tight-knit restaurant community, they had a fair amount of buzz surrounding them. Perhaps a broken heart could begin to mend?
It wouldn’t be so easy. Precisely four days after opening their doors, COVID-19 forced them closed again.
“Every restaurant says that their staff is a family, but let me tell you, you’re not a family until you make pizza through a pandemic.”
“It’s not to say we didn’t take [COVID] seriously at the start,” says Graf. “You’re watching it happen to people you know everywhere else. You know it’s serious, but you think you still have time. And then you have no time at all.”
Despite taking this devastating blow, the team knew they couldn’t quit. Allowing themselves the briefest of respites, they kicked Plan B into gear. “Our mentality was that we had no choice. There was no option to take any longer to figure out how to reopen, we just had to do it, all while being as safe as we could possibly be,” says Graf.
On March 18, Heartbreakers opened its doors again to a completely different world. Instead of a tightly-packed neighbourhood restaurant, they offered take-out/delivery pizza. They were met with an avalanche of orders, both of their phone lines ringing off the hooks. The first weeks were challenging, navigating equipment and product shortages, all while establishing standards and practices. The staff became their own bubble, working to provide comfort and a sense of normalcy to their ever-growing list of customers.
“Every restaurant says that their staff is a family,” says Graf, “but let me tell you, you’re not a family until you make pizza through a pandemic.”
In addition to selling completed pies, Heartbreakers offers pizza kits. Complete with instructions, the kits allow you to bake their pizzas in your own oven. “Working with dough is one of the most grounding experiences you can have,” says Graf. “To offer that to people during this time is to share more than pizza. It’s to share a calming experience.”
Knowing that pizza may be the ultimate comfort food, the team at Heartbreakers wants to nourish not just the body, but the soul as well. “I mean, making pizza is super fun,” says Graf. “That’s why we opened a pizza place, after all.”
The pizza at Heartbreakers is, in a word, sublime. The crust is thin, but has that touch of chew you’d expect from a live, dynamic dough. The sauces are bright and exciting. The kitchen is scrupulous in choosing suppliers for vegetables, meat, and cheese. All of this results in pies so carefully curated you might call them ethereal. Some favourites include the Sweetheart: pepperoni, jalapeno, a duo of fresh mozzarella and Grana Padano cheeses, finished with honey from Gee’s Bees; and the Fun-Guy, featuring wild mushrooms from Le Coprin atop a roasted mushroom and rosemary cream, with garlic oil and whole-milk mozzarella.
When asked what the future holds for Heartbreakers, Graf responded optimistically, but cautiously. “We just want to keep taking care of our neighbours and patrons the best we can. Always moving forward.”
To prove this ethos, the team made a tough decision. Yet another renovation was just completed, removing 14 seats from Heartbreakers’ dining room to further expand the kitchen. Less seating capacity will make for a safer dine-in experience while we socially distance. Meanwhile, the expanded kitchen will be better equipped to deal with the take-out/delivery business.
“I’m excited for the day we can have a loud, vibrant, tightly packed wine bar, selling great pizzas, small plates, and amazing wine,” says Graf. While it’s been a difficult opening, Graf and the team consider themselves lucky to have landed where they did. “Our neighbours will come by, say hi and wave, and tell us how much they love having us here, especially with everything going on. We’re feeling really embraced by the community.”
While Mariah Carey sang “Heartbreaker, you got the best of me,” it would seem that no obstacle can get the best of Graf and her team. They won’t back down, which is great news if you love fantastic pizza, natural wine, and terrific people bringing you both.
Heartbreakers Pizza is located at 465 Parkdale Avenue. Visit their website for opening hours and menu information.