Each month in our #OTTChangemaker series presented in partnership with RBC, we shine a spotlight on business owners in Ottawa’s business community to share some of their stories and highlight the challenges they face in hopes of driving positive change through their example and leadership.
Through community-focused events and a strong social media presence, Ottawa’s Little Jo Berry’s has not only stayed connected to their customers – but they’ve also helped make it easier to be a 2SLGBTQIA business owner as well.
In 2016, Josephine (Jo) Masterson opened up Little Jo Berry’s – a vegan-focused café in the heart of Ottawa’s Kitchissippi neighbourhood on Wellington West.
On their website, the cafe is described as “a shop built on community and friendship” with a mission to “create a safe, inclusive space for the folks who visit our shop and help us grow.”
All of this is before even mentioning any of their delicious vegan treats. Jo said it’s only natural for any description of their business to be led by these key foundational values.
“Of course, we’re vegan and gluten-free friendly,” Jo said. “But I feel like that kind of stuff comes secondary to the element of growing with the neighbourhood.”
Jo, who self-describes as a queer and non-binary business owner, says they’ve been able to fulfill their mission of providing a safe, inclusive and diverse space by hiring like-minded staff from the neighbourhood and their community since 2016. But as the shop shifted to take-out only during COVID-19 for the safety of staff and customers, offering that space for the community hasn’t been possible.
“We used to have a big sit-in area, and we really just felt like we were connected to our customers and our community, and that’s what’s really important for me,” Jo said. “Obviously it’s a little different now with COVID-19.”
Finding and creating solutions
Jo says an engaging digital presence has been crucial in helping to bridge the connection gap between their businesses and their community, including the launch of their Business Baby podcast in 2021 to help showcase local brands and businesses, and a healthy, engaged community on social media. But while digital solutions can help, Jo says being part of more in-person events has been a game changer this summer.
Along with helping organize creative events such as the Vegans Who Snack Food Festival and Vegan Picnic Pop-Ups they’ve also been able to participate in events around Ottawa – including catering Invest Ottawa’s Celebrating Our Capital Pride as a Community event on August 22nd, which Jo says was a welcomed opportunity to be part of an event supporting 2SLGBTQIA business owners directly.
“Someone reached out to me, saying they were looking to hire only 2SLGBTQIA vendors and I thought, this is really important,” Jo said. “Capital Pride is a tricky time for a lot of people, and so I love it when people are doing the work of making sure they’re putting the money and the resources back into queer businesses.”
Jo also helped to coordinate a Pride Night Market on August 20th at the Parkdale Market in an effort to provide events for vendors from the 2SLGBTQIA community during Ottawa’s Capital Pride celebrations. But they said finding the businesses initially proved more challenging than they originally thought.
“I think I had a little bit of a wake-up call,” Jo said
“When I think of other queer, non-binary-owned coffee shops or restaurants, it’s actually hard to make a list and it shouldn’t be. One of the reasons is that there’s a lot more barriers for people in certain communities. And that’s something I think we still have to build up a lot more in the city, because I think we do have a big community in the city, but it’s really not reflected in our small businesses as much,” they said.
Jo says holding similar events and providing inclusive, safe spaces for vendors may not only help provide a way for business owners to connect, but they could also help to provide a positive example for other 2SLGBTQIA business owners in Ottawa’s business community.
“Even just me being openly non-binary and talking about gender while running a business, I think is a good example to show people its not weird to be non-binary and have a business,” they said.
“I think a lot of people are already so afraid of being accepted, based around how they perceive their gender. And seeing other people in the community being those conversations for them, I think it’s very helpful.”