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SB in the Community

Interview with Erin Dunham, CEO, and Co-Founder of The Other Bird


Brittany Phillips on August 3, 2016 in SB in the Community

It’s been an exciting ride for CEO and Co-Founder of The Other Bird, Erin Dunham. In just under five years, Erin and her Partner, Matt Kershaw have opened six restaurants in the Burlington and Hamilton area, with no plans of slowing down. In May 2016, The Other Bird took ownership of the Arlington Hotel located in beautiful Paris, Ontario.

As The Other Bird continues to soar, the recent Burlington Chamber of Commerce Young Entrepreneur Award recipient shares her business wisdom and advice on building a restaurant empire.

What made you decide to get into the restaurant and hospitality industry? The Other Bird has built a loyal community of followers by offering culinary experiences that take you out of your comfort zone. When did you get the idea to develop a restaurant group?

It was accidental of course! Four of my six brothers are chefs, so I naturally got into the business through them. I had my first dishwashing job at thirteen and from there, I was always in hospitality in some shape or form. Actually, I spent most of my adult life trying to leave the industry. I went to University, completed my undergrad in English and at the time, I wanted to be a writer. I then did my MBA. Throughout school, I said to myself, “I want to be a businesswoman.”

I met my partner while I was in business school. We both loved eating and drinking but found we were always leaving the city to do so. We started opening places that we wanted to eat at and after opening our second restaurant (Rapscallion), it all just made sense. Two Black Sheep was a result of my love of oysters. Rapscallion was inspired by our love of Montreal and the city’s ‘meaty’ dishes. Also, we have The Alex (our first), Except for Kenneth, Black Sheep Snack Bar and our crowdfunded taco, bourbon and tequila bar, The Mule.

Ironically, I found my dream job that I always wanted in the restaurant industry. And in May, we took ownership of the Arlington Hotel in Paris, Ontario. Our ten-year plan happened five years early. To say the least, the experience has been unreal!

Funding is the most pressing concern of many entrepreneurs.  Great idea – but no money.  No cash flow – no funding. You raised more than $100,000 through your crowdfunding campaign ‘Fund Us to Feed You’. What was that experience like? Can you offer advice for start-ups considering this option?

The crowdfunding campaign was called ‘Fund Us to Feed You.’ We don’t believe in getting loans because the restaurant industry has a very high turnover. The margins are incredibly small. We avoid borrowing because you pay interest on that money, and if anything goes wrong, then all you have is a massive amount of debt.

Since we did not have the cash flow to do so on our own, we had to find a creative way to open The Mule (which is our biggest place). My partner kept talking to me about crowdfunding. I was very reluctant, and I initially said no to the idea. At the time, all the crowdfunding I saw was mostly people asking for handouts. It was months of him hounding me. Eventually, I said, “OK, I’ll consider it,” but I was adamant that we had to give back more than what we received.

We structured a crowdfunding campaign that did just that. For example, if someone gave us five hundred dollars, in return we would provide them with a five-hundred dollar gift card, t-shirts, beer and a suckling pig. If you aren’t familiar with it, a Suckling Pig is when you cook a WHOLE pig. We would then deliver said pig to our supporters’ home.  If you were a regular customer, you would likely fund us because you would receive a gift certificate of equal value and other additional perks.

The campaign blew up! We set a ridiculous goal of $100,000. We thought, there’s no way we will reach this and hoped for maybe $20,000. We end up getting $110,000! As well, it turned into a massive marketing campaign that we were not expecting. We received national coverage. We were in the Globe & Mail, National Post, and the Star. It was unbelievable! We had people calling from everywhere. I believe we were the first successful restaurant to complete their campaign in North America.

The amount of support was jarring. We had many local supporters, but we also had some from abroad. As a thank you, we wrote every donors’ name on the big wall of The Mule.

My advice to entrepreneurs who are considering crowdfunding is offer value. There have been about thirty food and beverage campaigns since we did ours and none have reached their goal. Don’t ask for handouts. Do something fresh and exciting that will get people engaged.

Be aware that you can lose money. The platform you use will take a higher percentage if you don’t reach your goal. It is important to do your research and read all the fine print. Also, the shorter the time period, the better because it makes your campaign timely.

As a young entrepreneur, did/do you have a mentor?

I have two people who I look to, one for personal mentorship and the other for business. They are both priceless.

I think mentorship is critical when you’re in business. Even if you are in different industries, there is a lot you can learn while you are moving through the ranks. I now have people coming to me to ask for mentorship, which is pretty crazy!

If I could offer one piece of advice, find someone who aligns with more than just your business. Ideally, someone who lines up with your values, morality and the way you want to be as a person. That’s what I did, and it has been unbelievable!

The hospitality industry is defined greatly by its customer service. To that regard, how does The Other Bird differentiate itself from other restaurants?

Our hiring process is different than most places. We don’t hire necessarily for skill set but more so for personality. We can train bartenders and servers, but we can’t instil realness. Either you have it, or you don’t. So we pride ourselves on having a team that is also a family. I believe customers respond to our approach. More often than not, they get as attached to our people as they do to our food.

In one word characterize your life as an entrepreneur.

Fast.

What advice would offer to aspiring entrepreneurs?

The most important piece of advice I can offer is just go for it! If you have an awesome idea, figure it out. Make it work. The worst thing that could happen is you will fail. All failure is a new beginning. You can regret not doing something, or you can do it. The fear of failure often stops people from expanding and trying new things. As soon as you rid yourself of that fear, the freedom you have as a person and as an entrepreneur is incredible.

What do you think I need most of all to be a successful employee at your company?

A wicked awesome personality. Patience. Understanding. And lastly, respect for other people.

What’s next for the Other Bird? Do you have any goals for the next five years?

I would like us to be able to support our employees to chase their dreams. To help them fund restaurants or pursue other business endeavors for themselves. We have such an amazing support system of accounting, finance and marketing professionals. I would love to use that team to leverage some of our staff, so they accomplish their career goals. We never had that opportunity. I think people who are super passionate deserve the chance to be whatever they want to be too.

To learn more about The Other Bird Inc., please click here.