By Sebastien (Mani) Manigat | Photos by Jason McNamara
“I guess it started around our dinner tables,” Mike Baird explains. “We would gather for family dinners and talk about the food we were eating, the different recipes we were experimenting with and we thought, ‘this could be a new avenue for us’. But I guess you don’t know until you do it. You have to take a leap of faith.”
Like many restaurants, ESCA Gourmet Pizza + Bar’s story begins around a dinner table in late 2013. Two years later, in the summer of 2015, Mike Baird, Melanie Lapointe, Alyssa Baird Payette, and RJ Payette, opened their doors to the community.
A brother and a sister; two couples; four friends: obviously, this isn’t your typical family business. Mike Baird and RJ Payette met when they were sixteen. They started working together at Urban Trade in the Cornwall Square.
“The three of us (Alyssa, Mike, and I) wound up working together at the mall,” recounts RJ Payette. “Alyssa (Mike’s younger sister) and I started dating soon thereafter. Mel travelled in the same circles… so we kind of knew each other. Soon she started working at the store, but we had already left by then. Funny enough, a couple of years later we were all reunited in Kingston. Alyssa was studying there. Mike and I were transferred to the Kingston Urban Trade… where Mel was working! One thing led to another and the rest is history.”
Indeed, Kingston plays a pretty important role in this story. Mike and Mel soon started dating, and the pairs began discovering the city together.
“There was such an amazing food culture down there. Our friendships and relationships bloomed while were experiencing all these new amazing places. We definitely indulged in their rich restaurant community,” added Mel Lapointe.
Starting a new venture is a feat onto itself. That is especially true when you take a local landmark and turn it into a new restaurant. ESCA is housed in the old LCBO building on Pitt Street (317 Pitt Street, Cornwall, ON). This type of transformation doesn’t happen overnight.
“Finding a location that we could definitely get behind was the catalyst. It gave us the confidence to pursue this project,” explained Mike Baird.
Alyssa Baird Payette added: “We did a lot of research. We took inspirations from restaurants we liked and admired. From the outset, we knew our space would feature an open kitchen. We really liked that idea. We also wanted white subway tiles, the statement booths, the marquis lighting… we hadn’t really seen that here. A lot of wood and brick, which was definitely inspired by designs we used in our previous businesses. We tried to incorporate a lot of things that we personally liked as well. We also put a lot of thought in the bathrooms. (laughs) We still get a lot of compliments about the bathrooms!”
A renovation of this scope can be quite daunting for anyone. To help them realize their dream, they enlisted the services of Bourgon Construction, a locally based construction company.
“We had never dealt with a project of this magnitude. We were very fortunate that things went so smoothly and we were able to complete the job without any major hiccups. We consider ourselves pretty lucky to have such good partners to help us tie everything together,” concluded Mel Lapointe.
Transitioning from retail, or any business for that matter, to the hospitality industry can be quite challenging. The four of them are not shy in admitting the amount of work it took to start and now run their operation. Mel Lapointe addressed that difficulty with a pretty blunt assessment: “The unknown was the scariest. Even before we opened. Obviously, we heard the stories. We knew it would be hard and that it would be a labor of love. It was scary… But we definitely fell in love! We hit the ground running and never looked back.”
Since opening their doors, they really haven’t looked back and the community has embraced this new addition to the culinary landscape. They would attribute much of their success to luck. Recently, they were awarded Entrepreneur Of The Year by the Chamber of Commerce at the Business Excellence Awards.
“The support was overwhelming right from the outset. It sounds silly, but even to this day we are often brought to tears. People have just been so kind and supportive. We never really expected that,” added Alyssa Baird Payette.
But, they would be the first ones to admit that they wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t have a solid team behind them. According to Mike Baird, the group’s background in retail guides their customer-service oriented operation and that without their staff they wouldn’t be able to deliver that experience: “Our people are amazing. Someone told me the other night that there’s no such thing as luck in business… But we are lucky; we are lucky to have them. They work very hard, both front and back of the housed. We cannot give our staff enough credit.”
“We always talked about opening a pizza place. It was always at the forefront. Mainly because we love pizza (laughs) and collectively eat lots of it! But also because it could serve as an ‘anchor’ and allow us to do other interesting things with our menu,” explained RJ Payette.
Cornwall is not short of “pizza joints”. In fact, seasoned foodies would be quick to point out that Cornwall has its own distinct style. Competing in this crowded field could easily chase away any newcomer.
However, Alyssa Baird Payette disclosed that they never viewed it that way: “Obviously, we weren’t going to re-invent the wheel. That was never our intention. We just wanted to play in an area that we liked and had come to enjoy in our varying dining experiences. I think we just approached it from a very personal and honest perspective. We wanted to keep it simple and fresh.”
Besides the array of artisanal thin-crust pizzas, the other standout at ESCA is the beer selection. Currently, they host 12 taps in house with a varying array of local craft beers. When conceptualizing their restaurant, it was essential for them, especially Mike and RJ, that their beer program play a central role in their operation.
“It was definitely an important thing for us. Whenever were in these stressful phases of the renovations, we would just ‘shut-it-down’ at the end of the day and talk about our taps. It definitely is a passion for us and we’ve noticed the impact the craft beer industry has had locally and in the area. We definitely wanted to be a part of it and make it a central component of our business. And it’s amazing what Rurban has done for us as well. I mean we currently have two of their beers on tap, five of their cans in stock. The response has been nothing but positive. It is pretty rewarding to promote something that is brewed locally,” added RJ Payette.
This summer, they will be celebrating the completion of a pretty rewarding first year. Although they still consider themselves the “new kids on the block”, they’ve been planning, discussing, experimenting, and debating various aspects of their business for over two years now. And, they would be the first to point out how quickly the local restaurant scene has changed in such a short time.
“It seems like there’s always something going on… all these festivals and events that are popping up that are showcasing food, beer, and wine. I mean, it’s a pretty exciting time in our industry locally and it’s been quite gratifying to be apart of it,” explained Mike Baird.
As for the upcoming Restaurant Week, Alyssa Baird Payette wouldn’t divulge too much about their anticipated menu: “We’ve been experimenting with a few different things… We’re having a lot of fun with it. We want to make sure we don’t stray too far away from our current offerings, but we definitely want to show people what we can do.”
ESCA Pizza Gourmet + Bar will be participating in this spring’s edition of the Seaway Food Festival Restaurant Week. For more information visit our page here.