Over the weekend I met up with Paul Meek (pictured above, photo by Barry Gray) the owner of Ottawa-based Harvey & Vern’s soda and Kichesippi Beer. Both companies are manufactured on Campbell Avenue (near Carling and 417), and Meek lives with his family in Granite Ridge. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
GG: Where does the Harvey & Vern’s name come from?
PM: Harvey is my grandfather and Vern is my father-inlaw – my wife Kelly’s dad. Harvey was a farmer in Quyon, Quebec he passed away in 1985 and my cousin still runs his land.
We grew up in the Toronto area, came up in the summers, and took the ferry across from Fitzroy Harbour. We’d farm all day, and then go back to Norway Bay with a towel and soap, clean up in the river and grab some sodas and go back and chill out at the farm. So this is re-living my youth.
GG: Can you describe the flavour of each of the sodas?
PM: The ginger beer is a little spicier than the traditional ginger ale that Canadians are used to. It has a little bit more of that spicy ginger aspect going on, a lot of ginger itself as well as ginseng in the soda, so it’s a little more Jamaican or even English in style. I was actually born in Jamaica, and I chose the ginger beer flavour.
My wife chose the cream soda. For her it was the flavour she enjoyed as a kid. One of the best ways to describe the flavour is similar to white freezie. The biggest thing that we wanted to make sure the cream soda had was that it wasn’t pink, that it was clear. Pink is not a naturally occurring colour that you’d see, and part of the whole concept is natural.
The root beer is a traditional soft root beer, it’s not too overly-spicy. A little mint in there as well.
GG: How long has your family been in Stittsville for?
PM: We moved to Stittsville 12.5 years ago. My son was born in Toronto, mom grew up in Quyon, dad grew up in Cornwall, they met in the Glebe in the 60’s. For us, we wanted to leave the rat race in Toronto, and knowing that Ottawa was the home I was familiar with growing up, visiting grandparents. It was a great place to raise a family. Kelly’s from out east, in Halifax, so there’s some definitely some similarities in terms of size and culture and attitude with Ottawa… a small town feel with all the amenities of a big city we need as a family.
GG: Local is a central theme and value of your businesses. Why is that important?
PM: We are a small business. Local businesses support us, and we in turn support them. It goes both ways. That is the essence of what we do.
GG: Where can you get Harvey and Vern’s in Stittsville?
PM: Quitters, Brown’s Independent, and Farm Boy in Stittsville.
GG: Harvey and Vern’s usually has a big display at the front of Brown’s. How did you get that placement?
There’s a lady who used to be the manager at the local Brown’s. Her son and my son play hockey together, I asked if she would mind introducing me to the Browns at the Independent. She said “absolutely”. So we called up, and the Browns said ‘well give you a shot, let’s see how it goes, we’ll do a little display there for you at the front’.
He asked how much is on a skid, and I said ‘I don’t know, nobody’s ever ordered a skid’. It’s 60 cases. He took 60 cases and I said “this is amazing, it’s the best order we ever had”. And then he put it on display, and four days later he ordered another skid. He called me up and said “I have no idea how many people you know in Stittsville!”
My son’s our best sales rep. He wears his Harvey & Vern’s hoodie and t-shirt to school every day. To have not just an Ottawa story but a Stittsville story has been a big win for us.
GG: How much of your product do they sell at Brown’s?
PM: I don’t know the exact amount off the top of my head, but they are by far the number one spot for sales. Our number one customer is our Toronto distributor, our number two customer is Farm Boy (the chain), and our number three customer is that one store (Brown’s). It’s massive for us.
GG: What is your reach right now and what is your plan to grow the company?
PM: The reach right now goes down as far as Oakville. We are seeing more growth into grocery as we leave the Ottawa area. The benefit to having the Kichesippi Beer aspect to us is there are a lot of restaurants selling our product. We just signed on with a Quebec distributor, and we’re going to get it going as far as Montreal now. To go into the U.S. or farther east or farther west we have to look at another facility.
On a very good week, we’re doing upwards of 5,000 litres a week. On a bad week, 2,000 litres. It ebbs and flows depending on sales cycles, but in a year and a half, you can find Harvey and Vern’s in over 250 spots between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
GG: We have to talk about Kichissippi Beer – it came before the soda. How would you describe the beer?
PM: Kichesippi Beer literally means “The Great River”. It’s what the Algonquin Indians call the Ottawa River. So again, going back to my youth, to Norway Bay and the Quyon Ferry, and all the great memories of the river.
We were running an import beer company. We were bringing beers in from Germany and Austria and Belgium, and had some customers asking if we had anything local in our portfolio. We didn’t, but I’ve worked at Sleeman, Labbatt’s, Smirnoff, Bailey’s, Johnny Walker and Keith’s brewery in Halifax. I said, “you know what, I think we know enough about this, let’s go for it”. We started Kichesippi, and my wife made the mandate that this would be an “only-in-Ottawa-area” brand. She wanted to be the Keith’s of Ottawa, where when you go to Ottawa, you go to the Parliament Buildings, you go to the Canal, and have a Kichesippi Beer. And that’s what we’re trying to establish in terms of the local experience.
GG: Any new flavours for Harvey & Vern or different beers for Kichesippi?
PM: You’ll see a fourth flavour for Harvey & Vern’s come out in the spring. It will be “something fruit”. We’re getting a lot of requests for lime rickey, cherry, orange cream, things like that. Something will come out late April.
With Kichesippi there’s two main projects on the go. One is looking to open into Quebec in the next year and a half. We’re working on the logistics of that and learning how to do beer in a second province with new liquor laws.
And we’re starting a new line of beers called “Kich Staff Picks”. We’re taking the staff in order of seniority and they’re making themselves a beer. Phil, who’s been with us the longest, just over four years, he’s up first, he’s going to choose the beer he wants. Derek, who’s one of our production people, is going to do all the design for us. Every two months you’ll see a new beer coming out from a different staff. Let the staff have some fun.
GG: Why are there so many craft brewers starting up in Ottawa?
PM: It’s because it looks easy. Beau’s has been around for eight years, they make it look easy. We’ve been around for four and a half, we make it look easy. I think there’s a perception out there that “hey, if I make some beer, have a fun, cut name, that people will throw money at me.” But it is not that easy.
It looks like an attractive place to work because when people see us, we’re at a restaurant, we’re at a trade show, we’re always talking to people and have a great glass of beer in our hand. That’s what they see, but they don’t see the taxation levels, or in the office, or wearing steel-toe boots every day because you’re a manufacturing facility. I love that, but the perception is not always reality in terms of the sexiness of the beer world.
GG: What are some of your challenges – for either beer or soft drinks?
PM: The biggest thing that I’ve learned is the government aspect of it, in terms of Ministry of Labour, or you have two levels of tax to deal with. I’ve learned about the amount of money it takes to ship stuff. The price to get something to you, versus the price of where it’s at is crazy. The cost of freight is unbelievable.
GG: And you’re shipping heavy glass and liquid. Could you go to a plastic bottle for the soft drinks? (Photographer Barry Gray interjects here with a suggestion: “You could go with a light beer.”)
PM: We don’t want to go with plastic bottles. We want to keep it authentic. Part of the Harvey & Vern’s brand is be forward-thinking in terms of an all-natural product. It is real cane sugar, there are no artificial colours, no artificial flavours. On the authenticity, it is a retro “they don’t make it like they used to” kind of brand. When I was a kid and I went out with my grandfather, we would get glass bottle sodas, and that was part of our thing.
We get push-back on our soda that it’s not a twist-off, it is a pry-off bottle. But again, that’s the way it was mean to be, that’s the way it’s going to be.
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