As small businesses owners everywhere continue to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps none have had a harder time than Ottawa’s Domenic Santaguida, owner of Italian restaurant Vittoria Trattoria.
Starting with a massive fire at his ByWard Market location in April of 2019, followed by COVID-19 shutdowns and fines, as well as a break-in, The 50-year-old admits this past year has taken a toll on him.
You wouldn’t know it, though. Sitting with the restaurant owner of 28 years, he was all smiles, saying hi to every patron and staff who came by our table in his south end restaurant, bumping fists and asking them about their day.
Every now and then he’ll throw in a “bon appetite."
The Ottawa native has fought tooth and nail this past year just to survive the challenges facing his business, while also trying to keep up his family life with his three kids (two daughters in their 20s and an 18-year-old son).
Santaguida says the issues he's seen over this past year just make him more determined to move forward with the business he opened in 1992.
“I kind of started the restaurant by fluke and the rest just kind of snowballed,” he recounted. “I’ve been doing this for more of half of my life now — I was 21 when I opened my first restaurant.”
Despite experiencing more downs than ups over the last 14 months with his business, it’s not stopping Santaguida from aiming to reopen his downtown Vittoria Trattoria location that was destroyed by a fire last year — it’s just going to take some time.
He’s hoping the reopening will happen just in time for the restaurant’s 30th anniversary.
More on that, shortly.
Back to the beginning: the start of Santaguida and Vittoria Trattoria
Santaguida didn’t always want to own a business. He actually wanted to be a lawyer. He even studied political science and commerce at the University of Ottawa for two years.
But, as they say, life happens when you’re busy making other plans — and that’s what happened to Santaguida.
It was some time in the '80s when he opened a restaurant in the Glebe and Santaguida's grandmother would come to help out.
"[Our family] was in [the] construction [business] and one of my family members said, ‘We should open a restaurant,'" he recounted. “We’re Italian, we like food — people should be able to eat like we eat and that’s kind of how it all started.”
Fast forward to the fire of 2019
The series of unfortunate events for Vittoria Trattoria started in April of last year.
Santaguida was on his way home from a trip to Verona, Italy when his ByWard Market restaurant — which had been open since 1996 — went up in flames.
Santaguida explains that he had no idea the fire was happening.
“We had flown home that Friday and when we landed in Montreal, I turn my phone on and it was blowing up,” Santaguida said. “I had messages then my phone rang — it was my dad saying, ‘The restaurant’s burning to the ground.’ It didn’t really sink in.”
The restauranteur was left in shock.
“By the time we left the airport, we went downtown,” he said. “It seemed like only five minutes had passed because I was getting phone calls and texts and messages and next thing you know we’re [there] and we’re watching the smouldering of the building.”
It was also a scene that left him in tears. It was all a blur, he said, with a look of despondence.
“It was devastating.”
It was only supposed to be “simple repairs” to the roof — fixing damage caused by ice and water leakage from the year before -- but something happened and then somehow flames erupted on the roof, eventually ravaging the inside of the building, bursting out from the windows and consuming part of William Street. The street and surrounding areas were on a lockdown as firefighters fought a stubborn blaze that just didn’t seem to want to give up.
Thick black smoke overtook the ByWard Market. People stood on street corners, away from the blaze, watching the tourist and historical hub blacked out by smoke.
Firefighters worked for hours to stop it.
Eventually when everything settled, the only thing that was left (and still is, to this day) were the bones of a ByWard Market staple restaurant that once was the spot so many families celebrated milestones and couples enjoyed romantic dates.
Luckily, no one was hurt in the fire.
Stanguida can’t say much more of the details of the fire at this point, he says, because there is a pending lawsuit against the roofers.
Then COVID-19 hit last spring, which shook up small businesses everywhere — Santaguida’s remaining location on Rivergate Way was, of course, not immune.
Needless to say, this added stress and anxiety for Santaguida.
“I think [my family] has been feeling the brunt of my anxiety and stress,” Santaguida said. “But just the support we’ve had and seen from people has been tremendous. I don’t think we could have asked for better, in terms of outreach from people from all over.”
And a lot of that generosity was received from people donating tents so Santaguida could build a makeshift patio in the parking lot of Vittoria Trattoria.
Bylaw business blows
City of Ottawa Bylaw officers came along as the weather got cooler and fined Vittoria Trattoria for its tent not meeting certain COVID-19 city regulations. It was closed on too many sides, according to the city.
But Santaguida says he’ll be fighting the tickets.
The fines, mixed with a drop in business, forced Santaguida to lay off some workers.
Pre-pandemic, the Rivergate Way location had 40 people on staff. Lockdowns and restrictions brought on by the Ontario government eventually saw that number brought down to just five — enough people to keep the restaurant afloat during a time when take-out became king.
Santaguida reopen his south Ottawa restaurant with restrictions in the summer and was back to 30 staff at Rivergate Way, but since the last shutdown Ontario had to endure through October and into November, Santaguida was forced to make cuts to his staff again.
Today, he has a staff of 15 at that location.
With patio season only lasting so long due to an inevitable winter, Santaguida hopes to keep his indoor dining space open with restrictions. If not, he — like many others — will continue to face continued hardship.
And just as things looked like they were starting to get back on track, Santaguida got a call on Halloween night from his security company, informing him that his business had been broken into.
While the smashed window has been fixed, you can still see the cracks in it as you step out onto the patio — like a puzzle that was put back together.
The suspect was caught on surveillance, but despite pictures being distributed among the media, conversations with the Ottawa Police Service and filing a police report, there are still no leads.
Santaguida says he’s now ready to focus on the rebuild of his ByWard Market location, while doing what he can to make sure his Rivergate Way location continues to thrive.
He owns the downtown property where the bones of the old Vittoria Trattoria stand, charred, but he still needs to plan with the City of Ottawa, go through its Planning Committee and then eventually get the okay from city council to move forward on the project.
He hopes to start reconstruction by the end of 2021 and have it open in 2022 — just in time for the restaurant’s 30th anniversary.
Personally, Santaguida is thinking he could see himself getting into real estate one day.
A worrier by nature, the restauranteur believes you’re only as good as your last performance and he knows not to take anything for granted.
“I appreciate every day and I’m thankful for what we have,” Santaguida said. “To me, I just need a better balance of life and work.”
But what would happen to the restaurants?
Much like when Santaguida was a boy, his son has shown a keen interest in running the show at the Rivergate Way location, so that’s always a possibility, says the owner.
Whether or not Santaguida's son will one day take over the family business, the father doesn't yet know. For now, there's a lot of fight left in the Ottawa restauranteur and he doesn't plan to give up that easily.