by Andrew Coppolino
The Fat Sparrow Group business appeared in Waterloo Region in only 2017, but the names behind it have long made a mark when it comes to food and hospitality; it’s a parent company for the collection of eateries spearheaded by Nick and Natalie Benninger. Nick, a 10-year veteran of the rough-and-tumble world of restaurant ownership and entrepreneurship, respects the roots of the region at the same time he looks ahead to new food ventures. That’s captured in the quirky name.
“We wanted a name that people would start to recognize as a trusted local brand. It comes from Edna Staebler’s book Food That Really Schmecks, and we’re hoping that people recognize that too. It’s a nod to the culinary history and traditions in our region,” says Benninger.
The group includes Uptown 21, Taco Farm, Marbles, and most recently Jacob’s Grill and the Stone Crock in St. Jacobs. As for that quirky name, fat sparrow is a translation of the phrase “fetschpatze” which is a little ball of dough fried in lard. Benninger says the creation of the group addressed, for the most part, a simple economic issue: economies of scale. “The smaller your business, the harder it is to survive. If we were just one restaurant during the construction in Uptown Waterloo over the last three years, we wouldn’t have survived,” he says. “There’s strength in our size.”
Benninger adds that the growth continues as they forge identities and sustainability for the different restaurant brands and the unique food they serve. They learned as they grew. “Once we got to two restaurants with Taco Farm, we started to get a feel for the power behind being a bit larger.” Marbles came along shortly thereafter, and the Sparrow continues to mature and thrive with the purchase of the Stone Crock Inc.
Taco Farm is now well-defined as a Mexican and Central American-inspired restaurant – the name just about says it all – and Marbles, another long-standing restaurant in the downtown, is fresh food and craft beer for the neighbourhood of families and other residents in the area, as well as the folks who work in the local stores and offices. It is their flagship brand, Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21 Food and Drink, which is a few months away from its tenth anniversary: there is something to look ahead toward here. Currently an event space with a few regular evenings (such as tapas nights for the summer), Uptown 21 is evolving says Benninger. “There is a plan in place for the restaurant in the near future,” he says. “We’re not 100 percent sure of what that will be just yet.”
Looking back as he looks ahead, Benninger, who has been cooking locally for over 20 years, says “it’s crazy how much this region has changed” when it comes to food.
“There are now so many interesting and good places and so many great cooks and restaurants,” he says. “It’s great for diners and it’s great for restaurants looking to keep young cooks here in the region. We’re stronger than a lot of regions, and it happened very quickly over the last five or ten years. It’s very cool to have been able to play a role in that evolution and history.”