Timmins sisters Louise and Lise Cantin started their restaurant business with only a desire to work for themselves – and two tables and four chairs.
As owners of the Fishbowl, never did they imagine, 35 years later, they would own three other restaurants, contemplate a hotel and consider franchising.
Unhappy working as civil servants in southern Ontario, the pair returned to Timmins in 1976 and decided to open a seafood restaurant and take-out business.
“There was pizza, chicken and hamburgers in the city at that time,” Louise said, “so we decided to do fish since no one else was doing it.”
The sisters had no business background and no restaurant experience, but they rented a corner store west of the downtown and served fish and chips, along with other fare, and also ran the convenience store. They split the day with Louise working from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Lise working from 3 to 11 p.m.
A chance encounter with an older British woman resulted in her sharing a fish batter recipe with the sisters and since that time, fish and chips have been the signature item on the Fishbowl menu.
Louise said construction workers building Timmins Square Mall and new residential homes in the west end provided a steady stream of customers when they first opened.
“We thought, maybe, if we had a real restaurant, we could do better,” Louise said.
After a year, the sisters bought a house down the street which had no road access and no sewer connection.
“We didn't know any better, but we got the zoning changed, an access raod was built and we connected to the city's sewer,” Louise said.
And in keeping with their independence, the sisters took on all the renovations themselves and converted the house into a 52-seat restaurant on Riverside Drive.
“We opened for breakfast the first day and that was the only day we did breakfast,” Louise said. “Customers came in for coffee all morning so we never had a chance to get ready for lunch.”
They later bought the land surrounding their restaurant and then built a new building in 1984 that provided 74 seats. Three years later, an addition was built and 66 more seats were added.
“My sister and I travel a lot and in 2005, we decided there was an opportunity for our concept since we noticed that there weren't many restaurants doing seafood,” Louise said.
They focused on southern Ontario and found a location in Barrie. The building on Bayfield Street was constructed for another restaurant, but that never opened. Louise stayed on in Barrie to manage that location and Lise continues to manage the Timmins site.
“After that we wanted to grow,” Louise said, “but we lacked corporate experience.”
A partner based in Montreal was brought on who had restaurant experience in running both corporate and franchise operations.
The sisters had been eyeing Sudbury as a possible location, but couldn't find a suitable spot. One evening, they drove past the former East Side Mario's restaurant on Lasalle Boulevard and found it was closed. It currently houses the third Fishbowl which opened in late 2009.
“Our contractors for the Sudbury renovations were from Quebec City and they were blown away by our concept,” Louise said. “They knew of an opportunity in Levis so we took over a former Boston Pizza and that is now our foothold in Quebec. The intention is three more in Quebec City and then move to Montreal and other markets in the province.”
Franchising is the next step the partners are considering, and an ambitious plan includes 25 more restaurants in the next five years.
“We are getting phone calls from those wanting to convert what they have into Fishbowls,” Louise said. “We just have to wait until the time is right.”
And due to the large bar space the Levis location had, a new concept was introduced at that location and will soon be available in Barrie. Building a wall between the Fishbowl and the bar, gourmet burgers are now offered in the sports bar section known as B and B Burgers.
“It's the latest trend now with burgers and we provide high-end protein, like Angus beef and lamb. It is something we would like to introduce in Sudbury and Timmins as well,” Louise said.
Another plan in the works is to build a hotel behind the restaurant in Timmins.
“For five years people have been telling us to build a hotel but we held off since there are other (hotel) projects in the works,” Louise said. “We have a beautiful park setting here and we are within walking distance to four other restaurants and to the mall. It's an ideal location and we need a new hotel in this area to generate traffic to this end of town.”
For now, the project is still being considered but no timeline has been decided.
“It's a challenge, but that hasn't stopped us before,” Louise said.
The sisters pride themselves on always “standing on their own two feet,” even though Louise said one of the obstacles they had to overcome was being women.
“At one point we went to a bank for a loan to buy two used fryers,” Louise said. “We were refused and the reason why was because we were told we were women.
“We went to another bank and a year later, the manager who refused us the loan the first time wanted to nominate us for an award as women entrepreneurs of the year. It was always a struggle to get the banks on board, but here we are now. Never would I have imagined, back when we had two tables and four chairs, that we would be doing what we are now.”