Emma Terrell first launched the Urban Botanist in Ottawa to help others engage with nature at home.
“I started fresh out of university with the idea and intent of encouraging my community and encouraging others to engage with nature in an urban setting,” the 31-year-old said. “I was teaching people about plants and inspiring people to grow their green thumbs and learn more about terrariums and gardening.”
At Carleton, Terrell had studied biology with a focus on insects. “I would say from my earliest memories, I have just been completely enamoured and obsessed with all things living and growing and green.”
Her business, started in 2017, includes an online plant and accessory shop, facilitating virtual workshops, and designing living walls for people’s homes, businesses or events.
Since the pandemic, Terrell has noticed an increase in demand for house plants and more engagement with her social media.
“We’ve seen a real jump in the general interest of millennials and Gen Z’s… wanting to get more into the hobby of horticulture, the hobby of indoor plants,” Terrell said.
Terrell is among a handful of plant sellers in Ottawa who said sales have been on the rise since March 2020. Amid pandemic lockdowns, they said, Ottawans flocked to open garden centres to fill their homes with nature.
Now, over a year and a half into the pandemic, the demand for house plants and tropicals remains high.
The popularity of house plants stems from a need to care for something. In the pandemic, houseplants became a way to boost wellbeing.
“One of the things in order for us to keep well during the pandemic, particularly when we can’t engage in our normal activities, or hobbies, or maybe have reduced social contact with others is to find things that make us feel well,” said Crystal Holly, a psychologist at Balance Psychology and Wellness in Ottawa.
For Holly, “Caring for things and kind of getting back to those simpler activities contributes to emotional well-being and overall well-being.”
Flower to the People employee Krista Evans said she saw an increase in demand at their ByWard Market plant shop in March 2020.
“It’s also just really nice to be around aesthetically pleasing things,” Holly said, “As people grow plants at home and kind of beautify and green up their spaces, they’re also feeling better.”
“We were pretty busy with plants before the pandemic too, but it definitely increased,” she said.
She said she noticed even grocery stores and big box stores jumped on the trend, offering bigger house plant selections since the pandemic.
Evans is an avid plant collector herself.
“I find it quite meditative,” she said, “I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking care of something.”
Sansevarias – or snake plants – are Evans’s favourites, and she said she has 60 different varieties in her home.
More demand, more popularity
The Plante family has been a part of the Ottawa plant and garden scene since 1981, when they started selling in the ByWard Market. In 2001, they opened Robert Plante Greenhouses in Navan, Ont.
Spokesperson Colin Matassa said they had never seen the kind of demand brought on by the pandemic.
“March 2020 is when the demand went through the roof,” he said.
The greenhouse always carried house plants, Matassa added, but they have never been so popular.
The brand-new 2,700-square-metre greenhouse is filled with houseplants and accessories. “There’s always something for everyone,” Matassa said.
On a sunny afternoon in November, greenhouse customers said they were reaping the benefits of the wide house plant selection.
“I’ve collected house plants off and on for years,” Kim White said as she browsed the greenery at the greenhouse. “It’s gotten worse since I found this place.”
White was shopping with her friend Krista Gower, a new plant mom whose collection began in February 2021.
“It’s almost like self-care for me to take the time to care for my plants,” Gower said. “It’s fun to watch them grow.”
Erik Watt-Sorensen and Elena Ienzi were also shopping for new houseplants and accessories.
Ienzi said her plant collection started when the pandemic started.
“It’s a hobby,” she said. “I used to travel all the time but not anymore because of COVID.”
Plants “definitely bring some joy and happiness,” Watt-Sorensen said. “It’s really nice on your days off because you always have something to do.”
Taking care of nature, taking care of ourselves
To Emma Terrell, the growing interest in plants stems from a greater need for people to take care of themselves.
“I think that more people were looking for something to do, not only to fill up their time … but also looking for alternative ways to sort of give their mental health a break,” she said.
There’s a science to plants and their benefits, Terrell said.
“They actually work to clean our air and remove negative ions from our space, and ultimately boost your mood,” Terrell explained.
She continued, “We as human beings have an innate need to be close to nature.”
Being away from nature, Terrell said, can lead to “lacking creativity, lacking productivity, maybe feeling chronic fatigue or anxiety.”
Terrell said house plants help bring nature indoors, especially in urban places where big outdoor gardens are not always accessible.
“Plants literally breath more life into your space,” she said. “Just adding that lush greenery is a beautiful pop of colour and liveliness.”
The economy is also the issue Benjamin Purcell wants to see become a target of the government over the next four years.
“The economy and getting things back to normal needs to be the real focus,” said Purcell, 23, a graduate student in international security at Carleton University.
Max Lampert, 13, was on Parliament Hill with his family on Friday.
Lampert said the Liberal party needs to address inequalities facing Indigenous communities first and foremost.
Although the prime minister has pledged to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories and address systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada, Lampert said he doesn’t have much confidence in Trudeau’s promises. The Liberal government has promised $2 billion investment in housing for First Nations communities and a $325 million annual allocation toward a distinctions-based mental health and wellness strategy.
“He has tried to please, but it falls short,” Lampert said.
Skepticism toward Trudeau’s weighty commitments was shared by Purcell back at Carleton University.
“He promises the world, and nothing happens,” he said. “It shows how much he is willing to say he’ll do, and they’re just empty promises.”
As far as Zeppilli is concerned, the Liberal party needs to act to prove that an early election was necessary and worthwhile.
“Saying you are going to do something is a start, but you need to follow it up,” Zeppilli said. “They need to lead by example.”
Nicola Steeves hard at work at Umbrella Bar. Photo by Hafsatou Balde.
During the summer, there were days when Nicola Steeves would walk up to 40,000 steps during a shift at Umbrella Bar, the sunny Dow’s Lake patio where she works as a bartender and server. At the end of those long days, she would often soak her sore feet and keep Advil and Voltaren nearby.
“You need to buy a new pair [of shoes] like every two months because they fall apart,” the 26-year-old Ottawa woman said, adding the cost of sneakers alone is enough to appreciate the tips she receives.
But Steeves fears those hard-earned tips could soon take a hit when the province raises the minimum wage for liquor servers.
Starting Jan. 1, 2022, Ontario will join Alberta and British Columbia in raising the minimum wage for its liquor servers to match the province’s general minimum wage. Liquor servers, who currently earn $12.55 an hour, will soon be making $15 an hour. As wages and the cost of living in Ontario go up, people in the hospitality industry – everyone from consumers to experts – wonder what the future of tipping entails.
Although tipping is a voluntary act, it’s a large part of the dining culture in Canada. Consumers may choose to tip because they received great service, but they’ve also learned it has become what is expected when they’re out at a restaurant or bar.
Different approaches to sharing tips
Steeves earns around $350 to $400 in tips on a good day before pooling tips. Six per cent of every customer’s total of the bill goes into pooling tips. Not all establishments function this way, but at Umbrella Bar, the pooled money is then redistributed among the support staff whether tips are made or not.
“If people don’t tip us, [servers] end up paying six per cent out of their own pockets,” Steeves explained.
The act of pooling tips or tip outs is when employers withhold or make deductions from the servers’ tips and then redistribute them among some or all the employees at the workplace who wouldn’t otherwise benefit from tips.
On a busy evening, Benjamin McMurray could earn between $35 to $40 an hour at Taproom 260 in Orléans, where the 20-year-old worked until recently when he left to focus on his studies.
“You would only have to tip out if you sold over $200,” McMurray said.
Meanwhile, on Friday or Saturday nights, which are the busiest at the Works Craft in the Glebe, Jessica Stewart, 24, said a server and a manager on duty makes anywhere between $100 and $150 in tips per shift. Stewart pools her tips to the kitchen and the host. The host receives one per cent while the kitchen receives 1.5 per cent of the tips.
Restaurants and bars have different rules on tipping and tipping pools, but no matter the arrangement, servers rely heavily on the tips left over to make a living.
Bruce McAdams, an associate professor at the University of Guelph who researched tipping culture and is a strong support of the abolition of tips, argues the increase in the liquor server minimum wage will have a big impact on restaurants, forcing them to increase their pricing.
“Server hours make up over 50 per cent of the hours of labour in a restaurant,” McAdams said.
There’s the additional concern that consumers will frequent restaurants less because of the price increase, which will in turn reduce servers’ shifts. “They’ll actually make less money,” he added.
Many servers on social media and in restaurants are not happy with the idea of scrapping tips simply because their minimum wage is increasing. Servers in Ontario make an average of $30 an hour, according to McAdams, which is twice as much as the proposed minimum wage, resulting in the possibility of them earning less if tipping disappeared.
“Minimum wage would have to jump up a lot so that someone would be able to support themselves, especially in Ottawa with the high cost of living,” McMurray said. The liquor server minimum wage and its increase on Jan. 1 will not reflect the inflation rates. The annual rate of inflation reached its highest level since 2013 in October 2021, according to Statistics Canada.
The difference between paying the rent or not
The act of tipping helps servers support themselves. “It’s the difference between being able to pay rent or not – or being able to treat yourself to something you usually wouldn’t,” Steeves said.
Steeves took her sister out to a nice dinner after receiving a generous tip. A man and his two friends were dining at her restaurant.
“He tipped 150 per cent and I had to go to the kitchen because it was so unexpected,” Steeves said. Since her tips were pooled, the kitchen staff would have benefited from that 150 per cent tip as well.
In Stewart’s case, cash tips are key because tips included in electronic payments can take weeks to materialize. “I have a regular come in and he tips really well. He always tips cash too,” Stewart said.
“He gets a meal that’s 25 bucks and gives me 70 bucks.”
Almost all the money McMurray was making was going towards tuition. “A birthday group of 10 people ran up a $400 tab and they ended up leaving an $80 tip, which was the most I’ve ever made,” McMurray said. “It was nice to be able to see that the hard work I’m putting in would result in a good pay for school.”
But McMurray said he is aware some consumers believe the service should be included in the price when they pay for their meals.
“I can understand where tipping is an issue for some people because they feel like they’ve paid for the product,” he said.
If tipping as we know it were to stop, McMurray said he believes it would discourage a lot of servers from continuing in the job.
“You would not keep quality people in the industry because we don’t do what we do for minimum wage.”
Although the tips can be great at times, a lot of servers are in the business because they enjoy serving and providing an experience to their customers. “Serving is a love language for me,” Steeves said.
A lot of the people she served over the summer were getting together for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, so Steeves said she tried to ensure they had a good experience at her restaurant.
The downsides of tipping culture
McAdams argues tipping should not be a part of restaurants and bars. Through his research, McAdams found there is some animosity between servers and cooks.
“If you’re a cook making $15 an hour and you know servers make tips and now you hear they’re making the same amount as you plus their tips, you may feel disenfranchised about the work you’re doing,” he said. Although a lot of places pool tips, servers are the ones benefitting the most.
One of the main reasons for McAdams’ strong belief in tipping abolition is the sexualization of servers. “You walk into an upper casual restaurant and unfortunately, women are wearing heels, makeup and their hair is done up because they’re asked or they know they will make more tips because of it,” McAdams said.
Steeves has not experienced being sexualized herself, but she agrees it is common in certain types of bars. “It’s an industry where you’re expected to look a certain way,” she said. “No one wants to eat somewhere where your server looks like they don’t bathe.”
To further his point, McAdams recalls a first-year undergraduate student came to him after a class on tipping and shared with him that at her campus bar – where she doesn’t wear makeup and her hair is always up – her female trainer told her that she would make more tips if she put on makeup, wore her hair down, and undid a few buttons.
“This is an 18-year-old woman. That’s why we should stop tipping,” McAdams said.
Research on tipping has evolved since McAdams’ work was published in 2017.
Researchers at Dalhousie University published a study in June that found more people are questioning the idea of tipping. The online survey of Canadians gathered attitudes and perceptions towards tipping during the pandemic, and found 48 per cent of the participants felt pressure to give a good tip more so than before the pandemic.
Back at Umbrella Bar, Steeves was taking a break during a recent shift. She said she fears the upcoming changes to Ontario’s minimum wage could create an exodus of servers out of the industry.
“If it turns out that people stop tipping and servers are just making minimum wage, I don’t think a lot of people are going to stick around.”
Social media is making its way from our phones to the tables of many restaurants, attracting the attention of Ottawa residents and tourists. Photo by Rajpreet Sahota.
Ottawa restaurants are turning to influencers to attract a younger generation of customers in the post-pandemic era.
Maddy Hadfield, opens her phone and types an email to an Ottawa-based restaurant. She offers to create and share content on her Instagram and in return, receive a free dinner from the business.
Hadfield is a micro-influencer, known as The Ottawa Diaries on Instagram.
Micro-influencers are everyday people who have a following of between 1,000 and 10,000 people and share content based on their genuine experiences.
As a micro-influencer, Hadfield built an online community by posting photos of her favourite cafés and restaurants, which, she said, eventually led to collaborations and sponsorships with many restaurants and businesses around Ottawa.
“I just wanted to share with people that Ottawa isn’t as boring as its reputation,” said Hadfield, “It was just a hobby. I just turned my personal Instagram into being about Ottawa because I found that I was already sharing a lot of things I was doing in the city.”
According to Aron Darmody, an associate professor of marketing at Carleton University, micro-influencers create trust with their audience to further their relationships with local businesses. Generally, they promote brands and in return, receive financial compensation for the customer engagement generated by their posts.
“More and more marketing tools are becoming a part of our everyday lives,” Darmody said. “Back in the day, people might look at a TV ad, newspapers or magazines. We had a great, clear understanding of what a commercial is in a way that things like social media started to change. It is blurring boundaries between the personal and commercial sides of life.”
Darmody said that it’s vital for businesses to have a social media presence as a direct line of communication with their customers.
Over the pandemic, Darmody said, many businesses have turned to influencer marketing to attract customers, largely young adults. And, according to a pair of restaurant owners based in Ottawa, social media influencers are helping to increase sales and changing the future of how they approach marketing.
Expanding their reach
Restaurant owner Puong Hoang said social media engagement has proven a great success for his business, Stay Gold Pizza on Elgin Street.
Hoang recommends other restaurants collaborate with Ottawa-based food influencers as it cost him between $150 and $300 but helped him garner a following of over five thousand people who care about what’s fresh at Stay Gold Pizza.
“Every single time we did a contest with these viral accounts, we had a bump up between a hundred, 300 followers,” he said adding that some posts would get between 5,000 and 10,000 views. “That’s huge for a small account like ours.”
With the rise of social media, some restaurants have captured an especially far reach.
“We get a lot of people taking pictures of themselves with milkshakes. It has always been a place where young people gather, especially like university students,” said Kate Rutledge, the co-owner of Zak’s Diner in Kanata. “I’ve had lots of people say, ‘Oh, I saw it on this and so we thought we’d come and check it out,’ and they’re from B.C.”
In the digital age, influencers have more power than ever to encourage others to buy or try a certain product. According to a 2016 study that gauged influencer marketing strategies, more than 80 per cent of participants found influencers to be more impactful, knowledgeable and believable than the general population.
What influencing comes down to, according to Darmody, is knowing your audience and your influence.
“If your target market is people primarily in their 20s, are you going to advertise on local TV? Are you going to pick up magazine ads?” Darmody said.
“What micro-influencers often offer is kind of smaller numbers, obviously in terms of followers, but sort of a much higher level of engagement. The idea is that if people are following these micro-influencers, they’re doing so for very specific reasons. If you just have a smaller number of followers, it’s easier to engage.”
Appealing to under-40s
The importance of reaching a target audience is crucial to success as an influencer, according to Hadfield.
“If your business is on Facebook, great, but you’re only being seen by people who are 40 or up. If you want to be visible to the younger generation, you have to meet them where they are and that’s really on Instagram,” Hadfield said.
By finding the right platform, the business markets itself. This was the case for Stay Gold Pizza, which saw Instagram users advertising the Elgin Street restaurant themselves.
“We somehow caught on to this trend of people unboxing our pizzas. People are going out of their way to order pizzas and posting videos on their stories. Then it spreads like wildfire where you’re kind of getting a larger demographic,” said Hoang.
Since the pandemic, Stay Gold Pizza has extended their business beyond pizza, including selling merchandise like hats.
“We get a lot of DMs, messages and emails from people being at a random shop and people would stop them to have a conversation about how they all like Stay Gold Pizza,” Hoang said, adding the merchandise “helped people bond.”
Eric Chan, an Ottawa-based influencer who goes by the name Ottawa Nibbles, has also noticed a growing number of young adults turning to content creation as a hobby.
“When I started around 2017, there weren’t a lot of bloggers,” Chan said. “Now there are a ton of bloggers, food bloggers and photographers. People just found their hobby and they’re kind of jumping into it.”
But Darmody has questions about the future of influencer marketing, including whether micro-influencers on Instagram are shifting from trying to sell to building communities and demonstrating more empathy after the pandemic.
“Is there less of a focus on the explicit commercial side of things that people were mybe a little more accepting of two years ago than they are today?” he asked.
Hadfield said she felt a bit awkward reaching out to small businesses that may have been struggling during the first six months of the pandemic. But over time, she said, she felt more comfortable and successfully found collaborations.
“Spreading the word of different local businesses that I personally liked during the pandemic helped other people discover them,” she said. “It’s important to support your local economy. When you purchase a product from a local business, I find that it adds value to it.”
Listen and watch Rajpreet Sahota’s walking tour of Ottawa’s top Insta-worthy restaurants, including Stay Gold Detroit-Style Pizza and Zak’s Diner.