Sitting in a sunny front window of Little Red’s Pub & Eatery in downtown St. Marys, Chris and Mary Woolf are relaxed and reflecting on the oblique turns that landed them here.
In the high turnover world of restaurants, sudden closures are not uncommon. But when Woolfy’s at Wildwood, set on a sweeping curve of Highway 7 near St. Marys, suddenly shuttered, it was perplexing.
“It was just one of those quick decisions,” Mary recalls. “We opened Valentine’s Day 2013, someone walked in and offered to buy the property, we thought about it that night, and closed the next day!”
“We were twenty years at that location,” explains Chris. “We built the business and clientele, raised our three kids … Things were good, but this was a chance to make a change. Do something different.”
As founding members of the Stratford food scene, the break was due. Chris immigrated from London, England in 1976 to work at The Church Restaurant and taught two years at the Stratford Chefs School, helped start Keystone Alley Café (“Only briefly called The Nut Club,” he notes), and moved on a few times — Benmiller Inn, Rundles, 20 King Street in Kitchener-Waterloo, then four years at Woolfy’s in downtown Stratford.
The couple met when Mary attended the Chefs School. “I always wanted to work front of house,” she says, “but I wanted the in-depth, inside knowledge the School offered. Then I worked in kitchens for four years before taking front of house.”
So closing Woolfy’s was an opportunity to take a year off and think about what they really wanted to do. “Besides fishing,” Chris smiles. “A lot of fishing,” Mary nods.
Just shy of a year later, February 5, 2014, the result was Little Red’s, a cozy and casual 50-seater serving upscale pub food for Woolfy’s fans. “Little Red’s Café was a space in the back of Woolfy’s,” Chris explains, “and this time we decided to go even more casual with it. Moving into St. Marys was the easy decision — we know the market and the market knows us.”
Located in a historic stone building on St. Marys’ main street, the Woolf’s were taken by the small size, high ceiling and worn floorboards. Stratford designer Scott McKowen, who created their signature Little Red Riding Hood illustration, picked the deep carnelian red for the interior, and much of the rest was a community effort. “As soon as people heard about what we were doing, they came out and cleaned, primed, painted, donated doors and knickknacks,” says Mary. “It reflects how the restaurant business has shifted to community engagement.”
“People who came out to Woolfy’s for special occasions now want to spend less but go out more often. We didn’t even have a sign for the first six weeks we were open, but at the end of the season I was amazed to realize 20,000 people had come through the doors.”
Chris observes, “They want to feel a part of what you’re doing. I come out of the kitchen a lot more now to chat with people I previously only knew as order cheques. They really make you feel like part of the town.”
Local Is As Local Does
The chalkboard menu dominating the rear wall expands on the comfort food favourites that draw the regulars, like Thai chicken curry, pork schnitzel, bison burger, duck tortière and pulled duck poutine. “The desserts, including the ice creams … it’s all made in house,” he adds. “The only exception is baking by Breadtopia. Simon Fraser does a pop-up bakery here on Saturdays before we open, 10–11 a.m., and he sells out in that hour.”
“We were ‘local’ before there was local,” Chris continues. “In the early days at The Church and Chefs School, we had to ask farmers to grow things because we couldn’t get what we wanted. It was nothing but … iceberg lettuce.”
Now, the Woolfs draw on a roster of local providers: Perth Pork Products, Blanbrook Bison Farm for burgers and meatloaf, Everspring Farms for duck, Ann Slater’s veggies, Stewart Arkett Honey, Sheldon Berries in nearby Lakeside, Terry’s Global Wide Fish and Odessa Poissonnier (sustainable sea foods only, Chris points out), Festival City Dairy, St. Marys’ C’est Bon goat’s cheese of course, and Shepherd Gourmet Dairy for “amazing” feta, ricotta and Greek yogurt.
That in-house and local philosophy carries over to the bar. “We make our own cocktail rim mixes and celery salt, and look for artisan bitters. The eight taps focus on craft and microbrews that change monthly,” says Chris. “We’ve supported craft brewers since the 1980s, when it meant driving two hours to pick it up ourselves.”
Chris favours small breweries like Stratford’s new Black Swan, Neustadt Springs to the north, Duggan’s and Cheshire Valley from Toronto, and Broadhead and Beau’s from points east. Mary’s wine selections are based on recommendations from long-time friend and Stratford colleague Billy Munnelly. And then there’s a broad range of single malt Irish and Scotch whiskies, bourbons, and micro-distillery Ontario gins and vodkas. “It’s amazing what you can find now,” she says.
Never on a Sunday
Overall, the Woolfs are applying their longstanding values to a simpler, more down-to-earth approach. “Probably the most important change was the emphasis on building a year-round business and being less geared to seasonal tourism. And that means serving local diners, and living more like the locals. After our break, we wanted to make sure we still ‘had a life’,” says Mary.
“That’s why we’re open just five days a week and closed on Sundays,” Chris adds. “In fact, we actually shut for a week’s vacation last summer. In our first season. No one does that! But boy, did the staff ever appreciate it.”
Because it leaves more time for fishing? Chris just smiles.
Little Red’s Pub & Eatery
159 Queen Street East, St. Marys
Hours of Operation
Tuesday–Saturday: 11am–2pm, 5pm–9pm
David Hicks is a Stratford writer and branding consultant with a life.