By Renée Hartleib |
Christopher Webb has been an artist his whole life. He began painting before he could even talk.
It was his Italian grandmother, Maddelena (Pavia) Asprey, herself an amateur artist, who inspired this passion. In fact, she was so important to Webb that he named his seven-year-old daughter, Maddelena, after her. In addition, he and his partner, Victoria Fougler, also titled their innovative business, Pavia Gallery—part art gallery, part café—in honour of her.
Ironically, it’s Pavia’s runaway success that has kept Webb away from his easel over the last year. Despite the current lack of time to make art, he still always thinks of himself as a painter first.
“I like to joke that I’m the most important painter to ever come out of the Political Science Department at Saint Mary’s University,” says the 1997 graduate. Four generations of Webb’s family have attended Saint Mary’s. His father and his grandmother (the second oldest graduate on record) preceded him and this fall, Foulger’s son Alex will study Commerce. “SMU has been a constant for our family,” says the 39-year-old Webb. “It’s a through-line. The more life I live, the prouder I am to be a part of Saint Mary’s.”
During his time at university, Webb was heavily involved in student politics. He was a Chair of the Nova Scotia Youth Advisory Council and was elected President of the Saint Mary’s University Students’ Association in his final year.
After graduating, Webb was immediately recruited into government, in the Premier’s office. His calling to be a painter was insistently knocking, though, and after spending a year in Italy, he returned to Canada and tried to make a living from his craft. Due to his political connections, he scored a few good
commissions and quickly gained notoriety as an artist. It’s how he met Foulger, who was to become his partner in work and life.
In 2007, Webb, then President of Visual Arts Nova Scotia, was invited to dinner at a colleague’s. The colleague was enjoying a visit from his daughter, Victoria, fresh from a trip to Italy. In a synchronistic twist, Webb had just been asked by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to lead an art tour in Italy. Turns out both Webb and Foulger had a lot in common, including a passion for all things Italian, and a love of the arts.
Fast-forward seven years and today the couple splits their time between Nova Scotia and Italy. They have their eighth tour lined up for October, just around the same time that the fourth Pavia location at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia opens to the public. Webb and Foulger are thrilled. “It really secures our place as the cultural café’ in Nova Scotia,” says Webb. “It allows us to continue what we’re doing at the library—helping to draw people in to visit culturally significant spots in our province.”
The more life I live, the prouder I am to be a part of Saint Mary’s.
Pavia Gallery began as a dream to create a contemporary art gallery combined with an upmarket-style espresso bar. Webb and Foulger found the perfect building in Herring Cove, where they lived, but needed to refinance everything to pay for the necessary renovations. “The overall idea was that we wanted to be good regardless of location. So whether we were in Toronto or London or Herring Cove, we wanted to create something unique and memorable.”
That’s just what they’ve done. Coffee imported from a small micro-roastery in Florence, baked goods made from local ingredients on-site, and art shows, which Webb takes great pride in curating, that rival large international exhibitions. One look at their menu or the names of the artists they represent and you’ll understand why Porter Airlines named Pavia “one of the best-kept secrets in North America.”
Best-kept secret no more. They had been in business two years in 2013 when Pavia was nominated for the Best New Business Award through the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. Of 87 nominees, they won Bronze. This nod gave them the confidence to bid on the Halifax Central Library tender the next year.
“No one really knew who we were and we didn’t know if we stood a chance,” says Webb, “but the more we looked at the requirements, the more it sounded like us.” The couple spent a few solid weeks on their proposal, hand-wrote the address on the envelope, and dropped it off themselves.
No one was more surprised than Webb and Foulger when they won. Suddenly they were in the big leagues. Two cafés in the new library, a 10-year contract, and a built-in client base that was 50,000 people strong on opening day last fall. “And it felt like every one of those 50,000 had a coffee!” says Webb, laughing. Since then, traffic in the library, and also at the café, has continued to be solid and steady. “People are really using the building. It’s exceeded all expectations.”
In response, Pavia has had to grow quickly. There are now three full-time bakers and four people in the kitchen, with a driver who runs between the kitchen in Herring Cove and the library up to three times a day.
By the time the AGNS Pavia opens its doors this fall, Pavia will boast over 40 full-time employees. A far cry from the early days, when the couple counted as the only employees at a single location and the local community seemed slow to catch on: “For the first six months people drove by and didn’t even know we had coffee.”
“People were expecting us to fail,” says Webb. “Victoria and I knew it was a possibility, but we also believed in our vision. We didn’t want to compromise and look back and say ‘Oh I wish we’d tried to do what we really wanted.’”
The two refused to make concessions on this vision and have poured their hearts and souls into Pavia. The public is gobbling it up and as their business flourishes, Webb and Foulger keep their values front and centre. They buy high-quality free-range eggs, use only unprocessed meats, and give back to the local community, including a $24,000 donation per year to the YWCA. Their efforts are not going unnoticed: Foulger has recently been long-listed for the RBC Women of Excellence Award.
There are times when Webb and Foulger still shake their heads in amazement. Like the moments when they happen to be driving by the corner of Spring Garden and Queen and look up and see their business logo. Or the days they overhear a stranger talking about the success of their company. “It’s still very surreal,” says Webb. “Even when we dreamed big, it never looked like this. It’s really very exciting.”