WORD ON THE STREET
WENDY HRYNKIW | WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Photo: Wendy Hrynkiw
There is a freshly painted building on Watt Street called House of Local and I was eager to find out what was inside this new neighborhood landmark.
I met with owner Ryan Bowman, who told me that, although the building is named House of Local, his own flagship business, We Heart Winnipeg, is just one of the featured businesses you will find inside.
“House of Local is a hub to promote locally made products and all things local,” Bowman said. “Local is a lifestyle.”
What began in 2017 as an online blog to support other local businesses eventually progressed into an online store. Ryan said that he and wife Jessica decided to take their business to the next level in 2019. They opened their first store on Osborne Street and, after outgrowing that space, they have completely reimagined and renovated the space at 680 Watt St.
On the main floor you will find their own brand of items — mainly Winnipeg-themed clothing items, mugs, bags, and hats — along with locally made and produced brands that he calls “Common Goods.”
“We genuinely want to help other local businesses”, Bowman said. “We see this as a hub to promote local products.”
“We won’t thrive alone,” Bowman said. “We need new people to come in and new reasons for them to come in. We welcome the chance to connect with people and local brands”.
In the coming years, Bowman hopes to feature a coffee shop, an in-house screen-printing studio, and food trucks. Soon to come is a “Build Your Own Shirt” studio, where customers can choose their own shirt, design, ink colour, and have it printed.
Bowman genuinely spreads positive vibes and a love for our city.
“We wanted to flip the script and spread positive vibes,” he said. “There is so much negativity in the world today.”
The Bowmans believe in “community over competition” and say that “it’s not about the product, it’s about the experience”.
Welcome to the neighbourhood, House of Local. I look forward to popping in on a regular basis to find my favoUrite local products, and to find out what is new.
HOME IS WHERE THE WE HEART IS
DAVID SANDERSON | WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
In almost any other year, founding an apparel shop dubbed We Heart Winnipeg just before Valentine’s Day would have been seen as a savvy marketing move, akin to establishing a costume retailer in the days leading up to Halloween, or a fireworks outlet ahead of Canada Day.
Suffice to say, owners Ryan and Jessica Bowman didn’t exactly draw things up that way.
“We were originally scheduled to open at the beginning of April last year but for obvious reasons, that didn’t quite work out,” Ryan says, seated behind their sales counter, the front of which is adorned with their official logo, a stylized heart consisting of two sets of diagonal lines running in opposite directions.
We Heart Winnipeg, 3-660 Osborne St., officially opened to the public during the last week of January, soon after the province announced retailers in southern Manitoba could welcome customers through the doors for the first time in almost three months. The shop, wedged between the Oakwood Café and a take-out pizza joint, stocks the couple’s personal line of T-shirts, hoodies, crewnecks and accessories, every last stitch of which is a homage to the city and province they call home. Ryan promises he’ll try not to come off as cheesy or cliché when, someday down the road, he tells their two-old-daughter Naia the story of how mommy and daddy once opened a non-essential business in the height of a worldwide pandemic.
“I know what people are thinking, why would anybody even want to have a bricks and mortar location in 2021?” he says, pausing to thank a customer who’s just finished paying for a hunter green tuque affixed with a leather patch reading WPG 1873, for the year our fair burg was incorporated. “But if there’s one thing I’ll want our daughter to take from all this, it’s that you should follow your dreams, regardless of what’s going on around you. Because let’s face it, if you look hard enough you’ll always find an excuse not to do something.”
Know the Joni Mitchell hit Big Yellow Taxi? The one with the line, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” Well, in Ryan Bowman’s case, it was more a case of, “You don’t know what you got till you’re gone.”
Bowman, in his early 30s, grew up in North Kildonan. After netting an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg, he moved east to Kitchener, Ont., to study journalism at Conestoga College. That was where he met Jessica, a native of Tillsonburg, Ont., a town of 15,000 located 50 km southeast of London.
Following graduation, the pair spent a number of months traversing through Central and South America. During their travels they decided when it was time to settle down, they would do so in Winnipeg, “as people from here tend to do,” Bowman says with a chuckle. Except from his vantage point, the city he left in 2010 to head off to college was vastly different from the city he and Jessica returned to, five years later.
“The craft beer scene was the first thing that really jumped out at me. When I left we had Half Pints, Fort Garry and Farmery, but when I came back there were close to a dozen types, which was pretty sweet,” he says with a wink. More importantly, he began seeing the city through Jessica’s eyes, and while doing so discovered a variety of places that had been here all along, ones he hadn’t patronized previously or never bothered to investigate more thoroughly.
“One of our first dates after moving back was Mercadito Latino on Sargent (Avenue),” he says. “As I mentioned, we’d just finished backpacking through Latin America and were craving some authentic, Latin food. It’s a place I’d never tried or even knew about before, and it immediately became one of our favourites.”
He goes on, noting even trips to age-old haunts such as Lockport’s Half Moon Drive In or Sargent Sundae across from Assiniboine Park, spots he’d visited in the past with family or friends, suddenly took on new meaning. “Folk Fest became an annual tradition for us, as opposed to just something to do with buddies on a weekend in the summer,” he says.
Wanting to trumpet their affection for the city, they launched We Heart Winnipeg in 2017, the same year they tied the knot. While it commenced as a blog with a mandate of “spreading positivity, advocating for localism and celebrating our city,” the ultimate goal was to monetize it in some manner, down the road. They just weren’t sure what that would look like, precisely.
The Bowmans got their answer in the summer of 2019 ahead of Many Fest, an annual, downtown celebration that features music, entertainment and, best of all, food truck wars. They applied for a booth and after being accepted, arrived with their initial clothing design in tow, a line of poly-cotton T-shirts and hoodies showcasing a compass emblem pointed “True North,” with the letters WPG underscored by two rippling lines meant to represent the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
The first night of the get-together was a chilly one, Bowman recalls, which definitely worked in their favour. As soon as the sun went down, all those who hadn’t dressed properly for the weather were scrambling for something warm to throw on, resulting in sales of their hoodies going through the roof. “Size, colour, it didn’t matter; people were grabbing ’em as fast as we could pull them out of the boxes,” he says.
You can probably guess what happened next. Soon, people sporting We Heart Winnipeg attire were being stopped and asked, “Hey, where did you get that?” all over town. Which in turn led to people reaching out to the Bowmans, who had already established an e-commerce site, which led to them telling themselves, “Hmm, we might just have something here.”
One design led to two, two designs led to six (our favourite: the Support Your Local Dog Park collection) so by this time last year, Bowman, who was working full time at another job, decided it was time to “(poop) or get off the pot.” “When you’re doing something like we were on a small scale, it’s not sustainable enough to just keep doing what you’re doing,” he explains. “I saw the potential to scale it up — the amount of effort I put into the business was commensurate with our revenue — so I figured if I can keep scaling (up) it will work. Like I said, we were set to open April 1. My last day of work was March 20, which was right around that time the province shut all non-essential business down. Pretty good timing, huh?”
There’s an old adage that states everything happens for a reason. That certainly rings true in the Bowmans’ situation. While it is a fact they planned to open a store last spring, that would have been as a three-month pop-up only, located inside an already established business. When the three months were up, a decision would have been made whether to remain there or pick up and move elsewhere. With time on their hands, they began to hunt around for a more permanent solution, somewhere they could put down roots for the long term.
The year before, they participated in a pre-Christmas sale staged in a 500-square-foot area inside the Oakwood Café occasionally used for overflow seating. In May of last year, Bowman contacted the cafe’s owner to inquire if she might consider renting the room out to them. “Definitely,” came the response and after working everything out with the property manager, the Bowmans were handed the keys last July.
They weren’t in a rush to open — after all, positive COVID-19 numbers in the city remained low during July, August and into September — so instead they took their time renovating the space, assuring themselves everything would be just the way they envisioned it by the time they welcomed their first customers Nov. 20, the date they selected for their grand opening. Imagine their disappointment when they opened the newspaper Nov. 10, only to learn the government would be shutting down non-essential businesses two days later — for the second time in eight months — to help curb the spread of the virus.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. In the build-up to Christmas, during which they offered curbside pickup, they weren’t only contacted by those with a 204 area code, but people from California, France, Germany… even Saskatchewan. Bowman shakes his head when asked if he knows whether everybody was an ex-pat Winnipegger, or simply a person who enjoys Guy Maddin films, or knows all the words to No Sugar Tonight.
“I usually include a thank-you note when I’m mailing something out along the lines of ‘Once a Winnipegger, always a Winnipegger,’ but I probably shouldn’t take that for granted. Who knows? Maybe there are people out there who collect T-shirts from obscure cities, all over the world.”
Now that they’re (fingers crossed) fully open for biz, it’s their intention to introduce a new style every two months or so. Next up is a line that will make its debut towards the end of February, one he promises will appeal to the “hockey fan in all of us.” They’re also hoping that by the end of June, they’ll be able to do the bulk of the screen printing in-house versus paying an outside source to do that for them.
Bowman smiles when asked if, as the owner of an enterprise called We Heart Winnipeg, he ever grits his teeth like the rest of us when the temperature dips to near -40 C, as it did much of last week, or when he sacrifices a hubcap on his vehicle to a pothole.
“Oh, for sure, but if there’s one thing that does amuse me, it’s the number of people who claim to loathe living here who continue to do so, or move back to start a family after they’ve been away for a while,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I hated Winnipeg growing up — I probably took it for granted more than anything else — but I definitely appreciate it more now, having lived elsewhere. Are there problems? Definitely. But there are problems everywhere. I guess from where I sit, I believe there’s been an injection of youth, creativity and entrepreneurship here lately that’s made everything from events to restaurants to cafés world-class. And I only see that getting better.”
DEVON McKENDRICK | CTV NEWS
COVID-19 and the latest round of lockdowns in the province are causing one local business to shut down, all before it had the chance to open its doors.
We Heart Winnipeg has been selling clothes and other items online, and back in April, the owners had planned to open a pop-up shop.
However, that plan was halted because of the province's first lockdown.
As things started to open up again and move into summer, owner Ryan Bowman said they weren't going to put their lives on hold because of the pandemic and looked at opening up a permanent location.
"We actually had our final inspection scheduled for this Friday, then found out just yesterday that nonessential is going to be closed," said Bowman.
So once again, Bowman said the store had to close its doors before opening.
He noted they were not blindsided by the announcement to lockdown.
"We knew something would be done, something had to give. So we were kind of prepared for it, which if anything is a bit of a silver lining," he said, adding they were always focused on the best-case scenario.
Bowman said despite the disappointing news, he knows some businesses are suffering a lot worse than his.
He is encouraging Manitobans, who are able to do it, to support local and help their "neighbours" through this tough time.
As for what the plan is now, Bowman said it is business as usual because they still have an online store that they have been running for the past year.
Bowman hopes they will be able to finally open their store in 2021.