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The Squirrel Cage

Thursday February 7th, 2013, 12:32pm


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What do you do when you find a foreclosed property that is so unwanted the bank can’t even give it away to charity? You buy it cheap, open a restaurant and live upstairs.

That’s exactly what a Toronto couple did recently with the building at 1 Maiden Lane in downtown Windsor.

A rustic wooden sign outside The Squirrel Cage cafe on Maiden Lane in Downtown Windsor.

The former hair salon has been given a makeover, complete with eclectic paintings, colourful throw pillows, and reclaimed barn wood furniture. When partners John Ansell, 34 and Steven Thompson of Toronto went looking for property for their new restaurant, they were surprised to learn that the building was available for a bargain price in the $100k range. They purchased the building and are now living in the condominium above the restaurant.

Fresh pasta salad is served to a customer by John Ansell. Ansell was a winning contestant on the W Network’s ‘Come Dine With Me Canada’ tv show in 2011.

Despite the high taxes, the property was such a good deal they couldn’t pass it up. “We bought it under power of sale. It sat empty for a couple of years and the bank tried to donate the building to charity but it wasn’t suitable. They couldn’t even give it away,” he said. “Don’t quote me on the numbers, but our taxes here are three times what we paid in Toronto for a property that was 7 times the value.”

Owner John Ansell serves guests on the patio at The Squirrel Cage in downtown Windsor.

The Squirrel Cage — named after early-design filament light bulbs that hang in its’ entryway — serves gourmet panini, fresh salads and lattes to a trendy downtown business crowd.

“We’ve already had a few meetings back here” said Ansell, seated at the back of the cafe in a lounge-like area that has a Starbucks-y feel to it. “We wanted to be able to offer gourmet lunches under $10 in a Toronto style cafe, he said.” The strategy seems to be working.

On a recent weekday lunch hour, there was a steady stream of guests, many ordering ‘The Windsor’, a grilled-chicken panini. Despite its’ hidden location, word is travelling about The Squirrel Cage. The owners talked about advertising on a billboard at one point, but now say they will likely forego that option. “We’ve been getting great PR,” said Ansell. “We had the Windsor Star in here, and now windsoriteDOTca.”

CBC Windsor reporter Sean Henry fuels up with a coffee to go from The Squirrel Cage

Chef Steven said he pays close attention to customer feedback and he plans to make constant changes to the menu to keep up with customer preferences. One major trend is the demand for good vegetarian/vegan dishes. “We do have a lot of vegan soup recipes we’ll be serving in the winter time,” he said.

“We also have vegetarian and fish panini.” “Once we get our liquor license then we’ll start experimenting with tapas,” he said.

The partners are confident they picked the right location for their dream business venture, despite the unusual real estate market and higher Windsor tax rate. “They need to do something about the high taxes if they want to attract businesses here.”

The Squirrel Cage owners John Ansell (L), and Steven Thompson met on a dating website while both living in Toronto.

The Squirrel Cage logo is seen against a background of graffiti in the lane way behind the cafe.

A sidewalk sign steers pedestrians onto Maiden Lane and informs them of daily specials at The Squirrel Cage.

Busy downtown workers can stop into The Squirrel Cage for gourmet pastries and beverages to go.

Customers enjoy lunch at The Squirrel Cage.

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