When Dave Heide announced the closure of his popular creole restaurant in Fitchburg in April 2022, many were surprised. Heide seemed to be hitting his stride again, despite the closure of Charlie’s on Main in Oregon the year prior, with launching Little John’s, a community kitchen with the mission of “transforming food excess into accessible, chef-quality meals for anyone, regardless of their means,” according to the organization’s website. But the restaurant no longer fit the needs of either the consumer, whose dining habits have rapidly changed, or those of Dave and his family.
Ollie, Dave’s trans son and the namesake of the new restaurant, said that the old restaurant, named for Ollie’s deadname, didn’t reflect who he was, and that the new concept was much more in line with who Ollie has become as a young man growing up in a world that is much different than it was even three years ago. The new restaurant, Ollie’s, will be located in the same location as the former restaurant, and is aimed at a new consumer: those who are savvy on environmental issues, who want to feel respected and welcomed, and who might not want to drink. Ollie described the old restaurant as stuffy, fancy, requiring dressing up, and while amazing, never a reflection of him.
The new restaurant, whose decoration, menu, and ethos have been heavily influenced by the teenaged Ollie, will bring back the popular speakeasy concept from Charlie’s, with a renewed interest in being accessible to the younger crowd with an expanded non-alcoholic menu. He said it was important to both him and his dad that teenagers know that they are welcome, and not causing an issue by being there. Ollie also emphasized their move in this new restaurant to make it as zero-waste and environmentally friendly as possible, getting rid of disposable plastic whenever possible and having an expansive vegan menu.
Dave, who outlined three main reasons for the change, emphasized that first and foremost was the wellbeing and emotional safety of his trans son. Once Ollie expressed discomfort about the old restaurant’s name, Dave immediately changed direction and let go of his award-winning place and rebuilt. Even now, despite the buzz around the change, teachers and peers still ask Ollie about the old place, and in doing so, deadname him frequently, if not intentionally. But his dad has made him a safe place, and Ollie said that in doing so, Dave is setting a good example of how trans people shouldn’t be a burden but need to be loved and cared for.
The second reason Dave outlined was less personal and more of a shared experience with all other restaurants: restaurants and the people who eat in them are very different than they were in 2019. COVID-19 has caused an almost complete upheaval to the way that the food industry does business, and the old restaurant just wasn’t really up to the task as it was. The old restaurant catered to an older clientele, who largely stopped eating out during the pandemic, and many of the food items on the menu did not translate well to takeout. Dave specified scallops as something that doesn’t hold well for the 20-plus minutes it takes for someone to pick the meal up, get home, and sit down to eat. While special food holidays like Thanksgiving were popular, the old business model just wasn’t up to the new challenges and changes. Ollie’s not only caters to a younger crowd who are more comfortable with eating inside a restaurant, their offerings hold up better to transportation and reheating on the whole. While there will be a higher end restaurant right next door, Ollie’s solves the problem of change by embracing it and becoming something totally new.
The third reason was that because of a series of recessions and pivots, the menu was a mismatch of lower-ticket items like cheese curds and po boys, and higher-ticket items like steak and seafood. When customers looked at the menu, they would see $11 items alongside $40 items, and more often than not were choosing the less expensive options. Heide described it as “fine dining on low mark items,” and that the overall message was confusing for customers who might have been looking for an upscale place to celebrate a special occasion, and seeing menu items all over the board. “We were too fancy, but not fancy enough,” Dave explained. So he took all of the food that his family likes to eat, and that younger people would want, and made them into their own restaurant, with a higher-end restaurant to come. By separating the two, Dave and Ollie are making a brand that is consistent and clear, is flexible enough to withstand the changes that may come—and is kind and welcoming to anyone who might need a place to come and fit in. All are welcome at Ollie’s.