Reaching new heights in the hospitality and culinary industries
By Rachael Courtemanche, BA'16
Erin Dunham, (BA’06, English and Writing Studies), doesn’t follow the status quo – instead, she creates her own path. Following her Arts & Humanities degree and Masters in Business Administration, Dunham started her Hamilton, Ontario-based hospitality group, The Other Bird, in 2010 with her business partner and Executive Chef Matt Kershaw, recent winner of Chopped Canada in 2016.
Together, Dunham and Kershaw build culinary experiences which pull patrons out of their comfort zones and into a world a flavour and decadence. They currently have five restaurants and one boutique hotel which have earned the pair local and national recognition, earning a reputation for offering unique fare and charming hospitality. From their meat-focused Rapscallion Rogue Eatery, to their playful taco bar The Mule, The Other Bird is now taking flight across southwestern Ontario.
Dunham was born into the culinary industry and always surrounded by people passionate about food – four out of six of her brothers are chefs! At 13 she got her first job as a dishwasher at a fine dining restaurant and thought she would follow down the same path as her brothers. However, she was quick to realize how demanding the industry could be, and went off to school to escape the food industry. With some of her brothers already living in London, Ontario, Western was a clear choice to begin her studies.
“I chose English because I am obsessed with language. English is one of the most difficult languages in the entire world and to be able to try to come close to describing it was the greatest challenge,” Dunham laughed. “I find it fascinating.”
Dunham studied at Western from 2002-2006, and she still reminisces to this day about her experience.
“I still - on a fall day - think about Western. The feeling of walking through campus and how there’s generations and generations of buildings…I just loved the environment there,” said Dunham.
After Western, Dunham moved back to Hamilton to complete her MBA at McMaster University, during which she met her business partner Matt Kershaw, who hired her to help him open his first restaurant, The Alex. They quickly realized they were going to partner and continue on this path, however at first it was a dilemma for Dunham, who had spent so much time and money at school trying to get out of the food industry.
“Ultimately, I realized that together we can change the industry and change the way people are treated in it, and all the things I hated about it,” Dunham reasoned.
The duo started their first restaurant together, Rapscallion Rogue Eatery, in 2010, managing it under the name The Other Bird, which has grown to represent a group of restaurants in Hamilton and Burlington, Ontario, and their hotel, The Arlington, in Paris, Ontario. For Dunham, her English degree was a perfect fit for handling the marketing and CEO role at The Other Bird.
“An English degree can be used in every single field and sector across the planet. It’s a huge benefit. In mastering a language mastered by none, it’s a big asset,” commented Dunham.
The desire to master something so complex like language worked its way into The Other Bird’s business model, inspiring Dunham to open restaurants that otherwise didn’t exist in Hamilton at the time. While aware of the risk that the community may not be receptive to a new concept, Dunham was up to the challenge. That’s where Rapscallion came along.
“We were only open one day per week when we started our first restaurant, and we weren’t sure how people would take it,” says Dunham. “But it blew up.”
After offering more hours and seeing how well-received their culinary creations were, they continued to bring new concepts to the city. Following their first success, the Other Bird team opened a cocktail bar, and did a crowd funding campaign to find creative ways outside of the traditional bank loan to start their next business, The Mule. It ended up being dubbed one of the first completely crowd-funded restaurants to open in North America, and was picked up in national media including The Globe and Mail.
The fundraiser ended up being a wildly successful marketing campaign to spread the word about The Other Bird, which Dunham says is usually marketed by word of mouth. As a result, Dunham took home two awards in 2015 from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce’s Business Achievement Awards gala, where she was named the city’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year and her company, The Other Bird, named Outstanding Mid-Sized Business.
The Other Bird has left their Hamilton nest but flown to familiar territory: they’ve branched out to London, Ontario for their next venture. Hunter & Co. is a cocktail bar that’s taking over the former Ritual Café near Budweiser Gardens, and is set to open early November.
“The downtown core, the restaurant and bar scene are so awesome in London it’s why I’m coming back. I’ve always wanted to be a part of it,” says Dunham.
Dunham hinted that this may not be the only new eatery The Other Bird will open in London. Within a year or two following the launch of Hunter and Co., Dunham hopes to open another spot that will shake up London’s culinary scene. She’s also partnering to open a sports bar in Hamilton in the near future.
While any entrepreneur knows starting a business is no easy task, Dunham and Kershaw’s approach to hospitality, service, and culinary creations have grown The Other Bird into the success it is today. With over 165 staff members across their ventures, Dunham says the way they treat their staff and their relationships with other restaurants have been instrumental in defining their business model and changing the industry.
“In an industry that’s so difficult you have to work together,” says Dunham. “We try to be very inclusive and supportive of other restaurants. We don’t think of ourselves in competition with them, we are all on the same team.”
Dunham has never followed the typical path to success with The Other Bird and instead has built a business model that takes profits and builds upon their legacy.