Opening a business during a worldwide pandemic is a risky move for anyone, but for chef and owner John Armstrong, it was the right time and place. While not an ideal time, of course, John has been able to make it work and work well. Moving from opening to closing to opening again, then back to partial closings have almost become normal operations for this Northern Ontario restaurant.
Much more than a coffee shop, Ernie’s Coffee Shop has been a long-time staple on Queen Street in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, since 1971. Purchased from the original Ernie—Ernie Febbraro and family—in February 2020, John has updated the menu, while keeping the mainstays of the restaurant that made it so popular with locals. Since taking ownership he has made changes to the front of the house décor while at the same time he has honoured the nostalgia of what this business has meant to the community.
Authentic, farm-to-table, quality, simple, rustic, heritage, nostalgic, history and respecting traditions, old-world cooking techniques, and romantic. These words and phrases are some of the ones John Armstrong used when describing his food business and his menu.
I must confess I had never been into Ernie’s before. Not since I moved back to the Sault or even before I moved away, so I went in without any preconceived notions.
I learned that John received his chef training in the Culinary Arts program at Sault College. From there he worked in the food industry for several years, in many different roles and in different types of restaurants from small “hole in the wall” type establishments to high-end large-scale dining throughout North America. “My last position was head chef at Union Restaurant in Toronto where a classic “farm to table” menu was the mainstay of the offerings and where I learned from the best,” said John."
John always wanted to come back to the Sault and said. “Because I love it here. The timing was right to own my own restaurant and that gives me the opportunity to build and create, here in my hometown.”
How has Ernie's thrived through the pandemic? Here is what John has to say:
We had no choice but to think of ways to serve our customers and offer the best we could. During the winter and into the spring and summer, we set up a wood-fired BBQ out front of the restaurant and it took off. There were lineups down Queen Street. The City of Sault Ste. Marie allowed us to set up picnic tables along the sidewalk leading up to the restaurant. We also set up a 'curbside market' selling house-made bread, desserts, BBQ, ribs, chicken and always something different. When we were allowed to dine in again, we put up plastic panels between the booths. We also offered take-out again and will be operating the wood-fired BBQ outside this year. All of the logistics to make this happen were a big learning curve, right down to sourcing the wood to burn for the BBQ. We have been very fortunate to get a lot of cooperation from the City, Algoma Public Health and our customers. We have a fantastic following and we’re very grateful for that.
I wanted to know more about the menu at Ernie’s. “Our menu is simple, true seasonal and local. If we can’t source in Algoma, we look in Ontario, then in Canada. If tomatoes are not in season, we don’t use tomatoes until they are in season. We make everything in-house as much as possible, including bread, bagels, focaccia, pickles, sauces and much more. I create dishes using what is available seasonally from the ground up.”
I had a quick look at their Instagram account and Ernie’s menu offerings are amazing. Along with the fixed menu items like the Ernie burger, steak and fries there is also a changing menu that offers dishes like pan-fried lake trout with potato pave with beurre noisette or smoked whitefish croquettes with pickled cabbage and aioli or chicken souvlaki on homemade flatbread or house-smoked salmon on house-made New York-style bagels. If that isn’t enough, how about house-made yellow watermelon lemonade, or their signature coconut cream pie!
John told me that his sources for food come mostly from the Mennonite farmers in the area and the Algoma Produce Auction, which he regularly attends.
Plans for the business include recently obtaining a liquor license and having the opportunity to serve locally brewed beer, wines and spirits. When John purchased the restaurant, he also acquired an extra storage space next door. He is renovating this extra space into a take-out market that will offer house-made bread, bagels, pickles, tacos, chicken, ribs and more.
“I want the restaurant side to be unassuming – next-level food – made with care. A place where people can spend the whole night, with music and lights turned down low to escape from the day-to-day chaos. Of course, the lunch and dinner crowds are different. We will change the food, atmosphere and moods depending on the time of day. We are even looking at renting out space for private parties in the future”, said John.
John envisions his restaurant to be a neighbourhood spot, that includes both a simple fixed menu and a 'true to the local seasons', seasonal menu. He said that he loves to collect vintage china to serve his food on and to provide extra elegance for our customers. “I like to get back to the way cooking should be and I am proud to own Ernie’s and I’m happy to create.”
I am glad I finally had the opportunity to experience Ernie’s and am so impressed with their delicious food and the new young owner and chef.
Ernie’s Coffee Shop
Owner / Chef John Armstrong
13 Queen Street East, Sault Ste. Marie
PH: (705) 253-9216