Places

Uncorked: The story behind Saint John City Market’s hidden gem

How two Saint John sisters are sharing the flavours of New Brunswick in the heart of the city

  • Published Jul 25, 2023
  • Updated Jul 27
  • 1,073 words
  • 5 minutes
Nathalie (left) and Gilliane Nadeau, the sisters behind Uncorked Tours. (Photo courtesy Nathalie and Gilliane Nadeau)
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When Gilliane and Nathalie Nadeau decided to take their passion for New Brunswick wine, beer, and spirits to the next level, they were determined that nothing would stand in their way. There was just one problem. Something was in their way, and it was the wall of a National Historic Site.

Saint John City Market. (Photo: Vanessa Chiasson)
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The Saint John sisters are the force behind Uncorked, a beverage-focused tour company which aims to share the flavours of New Brunswick one glass at a time. As Uncorked’s popularity grew, the Nadeaus investigated the possibility of establishing a tasting room of their own. Setting up shop in the Saint John City Market seemed like the natural choice. The City Market is conveniently located in uptown Saint John (“uptown” being the local lingo for downtown). Its clientele are passionate foodies who care about local makers and producers. However, it’s also a beloved heritage property and that meant navigating a labyrinth of rules and regulations.

As any Saint Johner will tell you, the City Market is the heart and soul of the city. The oldest continually operating farmer’s market in Canada, construction began under local architectural firm McKean and Fairweather in 1874. With a nod to Saint John’s shipbuilding heritage, the roof resembles the inverted keel of a ship. Hand-hewn timbers and dove-tailed joints have stood the test of time, as have the thick brick walls nearly two feet wide at the base.

A progress shot of the Tasting Room under construction. (Photo: Nathalie Nadeau)
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As such, in 2019, when Gilliane and Nathalie Nadeau decided to establish the Tasting Room, a New Brunswick-focused bar, they knew they had their work cut out for them. Not only would an alcohol-based business require the usual adherence to rules and regulations, but the Saint John City Market wasn’t exactly set up to host a bar. For starters, it needed a side door to support an indoor-outdoor space and late-night access.

Installing a door doesn’t sound like much. You simply knock out a few bricks surrounding a window, and there you go. But these aren’t just any bricks. They’re the bricks which defied the great fire. City Market was designated a National Historic Site in 1986. Even if the Nadeau sisters could obtain permission to make the changes, it’s not like they could just pop in a door from the local hardware store. Slowly, a plan took shape.

Andrew MacDonald, City Market Manager, says, “Like any other build, we started with a building permit from the City, as well as structural engineers. We then worked with the City’s Heritage officer, the Heritage Development Board, and a Provincial Heritage Officer….Finally, we were able to work with the vendor to meet their needs and get the building process started.” 

One can only imagine that durability was at the forefront of the architects’ minds. A previous wooden market was destroyed by fire in 1837, while its brick successor similarly succumbed in 1841. But the greatest devastation was still to come. In 1877, just months after construction concluded, another blaze rampaged, destroying approximately 40 per cent of this port city. City Market’s dense, impenetrable walls endured, making it one of the few public buildings to survive the disaster. This is a cherished space, one filled with tradition.

Inside the Tasting Room. (Photo: Vanessa Chaisson)
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The new door to the Tasting Room. (Photo: Vanessa Chiasson)
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Nathalie Nadeau, who manages the Tasting Room, describes the challenge of balancing practical concerns and heritage considerations. She says, “One of the sticking points… was that we needed our own door in order to accommodate some later hours… It was agreed that we would be able to do that but that the door had to be heritage-built. So we had our friends at the Saint John Tool Library make a wooden door by hand in a way that fell in line with the design of the rest of the building. The door was installed in one-half of one of the beautiful arched windows that line both sides of the market. The windows still have the original sandstone sills. We were able to get one of our friends to carve our tap handles out of the would-be discarded (sill).”

The Tasting Room bar. (Photo: Vanessa Chiasson)
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The resulting space, which opened on Aug. 1, 2020, is a cozy environment that feels like it’s always been a part of this public arena. It’s also indicative of the youthful vibrancy that keeps the City Market relevant. As Andrew MacDonald describes it, “Uncorked is a great example of a new modern vendor at the Saint John City Market.”

The mix of long-held tradition and new ideas is something valued by another City Market vendor, Joanna Killen, former co-owner of Slocum & Ferris, a cafe and fine food vendor. She points to the next generation of market vendor-owners as bringing strong energy to the space. She says,  “There’s a great mix of people like myself, who grew up in the market, having my first job and first business venture there when I was 19, and newcomers from all over the world, all working together daily… We are the 6th owners of the Slocum & Ferris space, and it means a lot to us to design this next iteration of the business.”

This spirit of cooperation is valued by Nathalie and Gilliane Nadeau as well. As Nathalie states, “We know that in order to make a difference, we have to work together. We’ve formed a Market Vendors Committee, of which Gill is the President. This allows us to sit at the table for more decisions and help steer the direction of projects. In the same breath – working with the market has also been so beneficial in many ways.” The Tasting Room and the City Market management have teamed up to co-host events, including Thursday night markets, street parties, and large private events. Nathalie describes their mutual success by saying: “With co-hosting, we’re able to license the inside of the market and North and South Market Street. So it really opens it up for a good time!”     

The return of cruise ships coming to port in May signals a busy tourist season for the Nadeau sisters. But their biggest challenge might just be around the bend. They have ambitious dreams for a second-level loft, with plans tentatively scheduled for 2023. No matter how things shape up, they’re assured that Saint John City Market will continue to thrive. As Nathalie says, “So many residents have a connection to the Market. It’s so much more than just a municipal building.”

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