Chris Phillips is an Alberta boy, all right, but he’s no Sutter.
Unlike the members of hockey’s famous farming family from Viking, Alta., Phillips — Calgary-born, Fort McMurray-raised — is more likely to have oil stains, not soil stains, on his fingers.
Undaunted, last week, on his Manotick property, Phillips, a mainstay on the Ottawa Senators’ blue-line since 1997, planted hops in the ground and whispered a small prayer. The idea is that these hops one day grow into the Big Rig beers that Phillips will be selling around town, and at his new Big Rig Kitchen and Brewery on Iris near Greenbank, a mere slapshot away from this newspaper building.
Real-estate agents preach location, location, location.
The Phillips brew pub has a mantra of local, local, local, from the men that own and run the place to the ingredients of the pints that carry the man’s name.
“I’m a little nervous to talk about it so much because there’s a chance there’s not a thing that comes out of the ground,” Phillips laughs, just minutes after the final inspection of the premises was completed. On Monday, the restaurant is in dress-rehearsal mode. Tuesday is the official opening.
“We’re 100 per cent home grown and local,” he says. “To be able to put that touch on it, and have some beers with locally grown hops, that would be very cool.”
But no farming background at all?
“I’m from the Great White North,” Phillips says. “We just grow oil.”
Makes sense. He is the Big “Rig.”
He’s not the first pro athlete to enthusiastically venture into business. Play a sport, earn a lot of money, and there is no shortage of big ideas pitched. Phillips has his eyes open on that score.
“You talk to almost any investment person or whatever, a higher percentage of these places fail than succeed,” Phillips says. “But I think a couple of factors set us apart. No. 1 is the ownership group (including the founding partner of the Clock Tower Brew Pub), and the people running the place. They have a lot of experience, have had a lot of success.
“And the confidence we have in our brewmaster (Lon Ladell) — he’s done an unbelievable job and is the most likable guy.”
All last week, the kitchen staff worked on its recipes, all menu items made from scratch, and Phillips sampled it. Along with the homebrew, of course. This is nice work if you can get it.
Proprietor Philly insists that not a single detail has gone missing. As the father of three, Phillips knows how it feels to see a child born. There is nothing to compare, but his latest “baby” has him fired up, proud.
“Especially when we started with nothing and built it from the ground up.” he says. “We were able to put our fingerprints on the design, and the layout. From A to Z, our group was involved. Everything that you see or touch came from one of us or all of us.”
His job is to bring instant name recognition, of course, but Phillips has been more hands-on in the run-up to Tuesday’s opening than he imagined. In the construction of a building, setting up a brewery, a menu, a brand, a thousand decisions need to be made and approved.
“Now, you have people in place that are going to run it and operate it,” he says. “I will be a little more hands-off. Obviously, I’m going to be here as much as I can, and be seen as much as possible, but being involved in the building and design of it has been fun.”
Other hockey players have come to Ottawa for hockey, and stayed, working in media or business ventures long after their playing days were over. Phillips gets that, even as he prepares to suit up for his 15th Senators season, with more than 1,000 games played in the uniform.
“It’s the city,” he says. “From Day 1 you get welcomed with open arms. I’ve had the chance to really mature here. My wife, Erin, is from Ottawa, and we now have three kids. Having them involved in sports and activities, the amount of people that we’ve met and are friends with, I couldn’t think of a better place to raise our kids.
“There’s such a great sense of community here, so I would say long before this restaurant came along, I said the same thing, that we wouldn’t be going anywhere when hockey is done.
“This certainly solidifies that.”
Some hockey players plant roots.
Others plant hops.