The Key Ingredients

With a resized and refocused Willies Café, Ian Kennard procures the industry’s
most elusive ingredient: work-life balance

Photo: Willie’s Café owner, Ian Kennard

IAN KENNARD KNEW five years ago the time had come to make a change, but he didn’t imagine his future plans would include so much of his past.

Back in 2016, Kennard decided to sell his popular Wellington Street eatery, Willie’s Café, get out of the restaurant industry and start sharing his business knowledge through a teaching position at Fanshawe College.

As fate would have it, he ended up selling the building Willie’s called home, but he kept the business with the intention of focusing on catering opportunities. That said, he needed a food prep location for the business, and after a short search, his journey took him just a few blocks from his home.

After a brief negotiation with building manager Dave Cook, Kennard signed a lease at the London Food Incubator in Old East Village.

“Two days of looking at the space, ­figuring out how to make it work for catering, we said we could really open the café again,” Kennard says. “We had a lot of people telling us how much they missed us, how sad they were we closed. So, we sat down and said, ‘Is this what we want to do?’ It wasn’t a tough conversation.”

Kennard then “crunched some numbers,” and concluded the new café would make sense from a business perspective.

“Could I have imagined what we are today? No. But sometimes when you walk into something, you know it’s the right place—the place to be” —Ian Kennard

However, if Willie’s Café was to return, it would have to be with fewer staff, a smaller menu and shorter hours. After all, being open six days—as any small business owner knows—really means working seven days a week.

What’s more, in the short few months between closing and reopening, Kennard learned he enjoyed taking time for himself.

“When we were off those three months, I had a taste of what it was like to go to my cottage every weekend. I was at my cottage five weekends in a row. When we had the restaurant open, I might get there five weekends in a year,” Kennard says. “I knew I didn’t want to burn out. And I wanted it to be a situation where I could continue to teach. Fanshawe has been incredibly supportive through all of this.”

On June 2, 2017, Willie’s Café formally reopened.

While he figured to get some 70 to 75 per cent of his former customers back, Kennard also counted on all the new people who would be walking into the incubator. Given the neighbourhood and the location, he was excited for how it was all going to work out.

Willie’s Café re-opened in the London Food Incubator last June

The public’s support “has been amazing,” Kennard says, with customers loving the new space, not to mention the other incubator businesses, almost as much as he does.

While excited for Old East Village’s future—“we’re just sitting on the edge of what the potential is for this neighbourhood”—Kennard says his own is shaping up to be just what he was hoping to see.

“Could I have imagined what we are today? No. But sometimes when you walk into something, you know it’s the right place—the place to be. This was that sort of feeling,” he says. “It’s a little cheesy to say, but it’s where we were meant to be. We loved the other location. We miss the other location. But this just feels ­comfortable. It was a little weird getting used to it, but now this feels like home.”  Sean Meyer