Canal vendors looking to recoup sunk costs as skateway stays closed

Hennessy said he laid out thousands of dollars to bring the trailer up to code. (John Hennessy - image credit)
Hennessy said he laid out thousands of dollars to bring the trailer up to code. (John Hennessy - image credit)

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, the NCC announced that the Rideau Canal Skateway will not open this season for the first time in its history.

When John Hennessy got a call from the National Capital Commission (NCC) inviting him to become a vendor on the Rideau Canal Skateway this season, he was elated.

Hennessy opened ZUPS ByWard, a downtown Ottawa restaurant specializing in poutine, just six months ago. He wasn't planning on expanding so soon, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.

"They thought we would be a perfect partner for the canal," said Hennessy, who also has a location to the north in Wakefield.

He immediately got down to work, spending "north of $10,000" to purchase, brand and upgrade a new food-safe trailer to meet weight, fire safety and fuel requirements.

"It was mostly time, but there were some expenses out of pocket while we secured everything that we needed to have a compliant and safe trailer on the ice," he said.

John Hennessy
John Hennessy

Instead, as the canal remains closed due to unsuitable weather and poor ice, Hennessy is now one of several food and beverage vendors left cooling their heels and watching their investments melt away.

At this late stage in the season, it's looking increasingly possible that the skateway won't open at all.

"The prospect of us doing well was pretty good," Hennessy said. "It's just a weather-related issue that we unfortunately had to deal with."

'For a small company, it's a lot'

Dunrobin Distilleries made its skateway debut last winter, the first time spirits were sold on the canal.

This year, the company was hoping to build on that. President and co-founder Mark Watson said his business also spent around $10,000 to secure a shack and bring it up to code, make signs, line up seasonal staff and purchase supplies.

"We went through all that and unfortunately Mother Nature prevented us from being able to sell our spirits on the canal," Watson said.

Mark Watson
Mark Watson

Certain items, such as the ingredients for the bespoke Northern Spike cocktail, were purchased specifically for the skating season and can't really be used. Those are now considered sunk costs, Watson said.

"For a small company, it's a lot," he said. "We'd have to sell a lot of drinks to recoup that."

Looking for other opportunities

Hennessy said he's waiting to hear if ZUPS will be invited to set up at Bluesfest this summer. He also has his sights set on Ottawa PoutineFest, the Canadian Tulip Festival and the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

"While it is really disappointing we didn't get on the ice, we now have a mobile offering that we didn't have before," he noted. "It just came early and it wasn't offset by revenue."

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press
Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

While disappointed, both Hennessy and Watson said they're pleased with how the NCC has been handling the setback.

"The NCC tried their very best," Watson said.

"I really believe that they kept us informed at every step of the process and at the end of the day, safety came first."