Ellena grew up in the hospitality industry knowing that someday she’d own her own restaurant. She never expected that her business would become such a community hub.
Ellena’s Café recently marked five years in business, and was also awarded Business of the Year from the local downtown Business Improvement Association (BIA). It’s known for its fresh, tasty home-made fare – especially the soups, sandwiches and pie. Over the years, from humble beginnings as a lunch stop, Fleury has adapted to the changing needs and desires of her clientele and the community to incorporate a thriving catering operation as well as a well-stocked kitchen shop.
Business has evolved to fill community needs
“As time went on, catering became more important to the business. People really wanted catering; they wanted fresh food, they didn’t want something that was pre-made. They wanted flexibility with what they were ordering, something that would fit their specific needs. So we work within those needs; we work within budgets, we work within different dietary restrictions and we try to make it more of an event rather than just a dinner,” she said, adding that pretty much every aspect of the business has evolved since opening at 16 Dundas St. E back in 2010 as more of a co-operative venture with other related businesses incubating under one roof.
“When I opened it was a learning curve. I had been working for other people in the restaurant business and banking sector and I knew what was going on but it took time to get to know what people wanted or needed. And over time it’s changed – people’s tastes have changed. I was doing things that not many others were. It was a challenge to get people to eat differently and want to have more locally sounded foods. I really didn’t know what I was going to evolve into. Ultimately I thought I would just figure it out and adapt as I went along. I had a plan, but in saying that I also felt that working as a co-op was a good way to start but that I needed to make full use of the space I have here over the longer term.
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“It turns out I really needed that space because we are quite busy with diners, but also now with special gatherings, family functions, showers, meetings and music concerts. Was that the plan all along? No it wasn’t. I knew I wanted a café and I brought in the catering because there was a demand for it and I brought in the retail side of it because, again, it made sense with the size of the space I had. And not only was that but there an area missing within the town where you could buy gourmet and high-quality kitchen items.”
The friendly, welcoming vibe and home-like atmosphere, as well as Fleury’s passionate dedication to helping build a better community, has turned Ellena’s into a significant gathering place for the community in many respects – again, an unexpected but welcome development in the history of the café.
“We still have multiple businesses under one roof, which does help. We have Janet’s Flowers and Kathleen Williams, who is an accountant, so they often meet with clients in the café which brings in different groups of people. Another aspect is that I am quite involved with a number of different organizations within the community, so because of that it’s often easier for me to meet here because we have the space and the schedule is more flexible here. And because I am generally always here, people know I am easily accessible. It’s also nice being right in the centre of town because so many people are already coming downtown from other communities to shop or eat. And there is always food available, which makes it a nicer atmosphere for holding a meeting or function on site.”
Hospitality runs in the family
Fleury grew up in Strathcona and her parents, besides having full-time jobs, at one time also owned the local Dairy Queen outlet which was a seasonal operation at the time located just north of Highway 401. They also owned a burger joint across from the high school. During high school Fleury worked at the new McDonald’s not long after it first opened and after her parents sold their businesses. Wanting to get a solid grounding in the hospitality and restaurant business, while she was working first for her family and then for her in-laws who ran what is now Paul’s Pizza, she took Hotel and Restaurant Management at Loyalist College, working for the Ramada Hotel in Belleville, as well as other business and restaurant management related courses.
Once she started having kids, Fleury chose to take a job at one of the local banks in order to have a 9 to 5 job and not have to work weekends. Her oldest son’s affinity for making cakes spurred Fleury to think about opening a café as a place to showcase her passion for cooking, baking and food in general. As the kids were getting older, she decided to take the leap, knowing that there was a demand for a quality lunch venue in the downtown core.
“A couple of places had opened and closed, and I know from working downtown myself there was no place to get fresh food that was homemade or sourced locally. So that really was the premise of opening the café,” she said, adding she loves the fact that Ellena’s has been able to thrive and be part of a real renaissance for downtown Napanee, and the community as a whole.
A supportive community
“I feel really fortunate to be here. I love this area and loved growing up here, working here and raising a family here. I like that Napanee is a small town but I also like that there are new people and new businesses coming into the area. There’s a lot of excitement, energy and creativity here. I know that we have the support of the town council and the staff at L&A County too, which I think has been critical to the success of the area. The residents get behind community activities and causes; people are always stepping up to volunteer, to raise money or support new cultural events. And the business community is supportive too. We’re always working together.
“My philosophy has always been that the better I do, the better my neighbours do, the better our community does, because we are all depending on each other. If my business does well, and the downtown does well, then industry will want to come here because they see a vibrant downtown and a growing, energized town. If that happens, then there will be more jobs, better real estate values and a real sense of a community on the move.”