"Hey, can I ask you a question?"
About a month ago, Franck Ndayubashe was at a gas station, filling his tank, when a person at an adjacent pump called out to him.
Ndayubashe didn't have a clue what the fellow wanted (his first thought was directions), but when Ndayubashe replied, "Sure, anything," the man pointed at the bow tie the 28-year-old was sporting and said, "Where did you get that?"
"I told him, 'I got it from me,' " said Ndayubashe, the owner of a Winnipeg-based operation called Off the Wood that markets hip fashion accessories, such as bow ties and sunglasses, created out of different types of wood (including teak, black walnut, bamboo and beech).
Not only did the inquisitor buy three bow ties on the spot -- Ndayubashe rarely leaves home without tucking a dozen or so in his carrying case, he said with a wink -- when Ndayubashe went inside to pay for his gas, the first thing out of the cas.
Ndayubashe was born in the African nation of Burundi. When he was 13, his mother sent Ndayubashe and his 15-year-old brother to Montreal to stay with their older brother, who was already living in Quebec with a 30-year-old cousin.
"Basically, we moved (to Canada) to escape the civil war back home," Ndayubashe said. "The war was terrible; I didn't lose any family members to my knowledge, but I have friends that lost almost their entire family. Very sad stories."
Ndayubashe, whose mother tongue is French, spent eight years in Montreal. In 2009, however, he felt the urge to relocate to a different part of the country to complete his university studies -- a "quiet place" where there wouldn't be too many distractions. A friend living in Winnipeg urged him to move west, telling him the prairie city would be a perfect fit. The only drawback, she warned, is the frigid winters.
Ndayubashe arrived in January 2009 on a morning when the temperature was hovering around -40 C. Because there was a minor problem with the plane he arrived on, he and his fellow passengers had to trek 100 metres or so across the tarmac to get to the terminal, he recalled.
"Even though we weren't out there very long, I had never experienced anything so cold in my life," he said. "I was wondering, 'Is this Canada or Siberia?' "
After graduating from the University of Winnipeg in 2012 with a degree in business administration, Ndayubashe chose to make Manitoba his permanent residence. He returned to Burundi in 2014 to attend a cousin's wedding and it was during that trip he made up his mind to go into business for himself -- primarily to help out people in Mutanga Sud, where he grew up.
"I was kind of shocked by what I saw there when I went back," Ndayubashe said, taking a sip of coffee. "The river I used to swim in when I was a kid was all dried up. The housing in my old neighbourhood was collapsing, most of the people I grew up with were out of work and the government didn't seem to care."
Ndayubashe spent the return flight tossing ideas around in his head, wondering what he could do to raise money for his countrymen. He'd always been a bit of a clothes horse, so he considered a business that marketed bow ties made out of authentic African fabric. But after getting his mother to ship him a few metres of material, he wasn't as impressed with the end product as he thought he would be. That's when he recalled a wooden necklace he once owned, which people used to compliment every time he wore it.
"That's it!" he told himself. "I have to make my bow ties out of wood."
Off the Wood's products are manufactured in rural Quebec by a person Ndayubashe has been buddies with since high school. A carpenter by trade, he told his chum "No sweat" when Ndayubashe contacted him a year ago to see if he would be able to turn the bow tie dream into a reality. He crafted one tie for starters and mailed it off to his pal. Ndayubashe was blown away when he got his hands on it, and told his friend, "Give me a few months to get some money together and then we'll do this for real."
Off the Wood made its official debut in mid-June.
The company currently markets eight styles of bow ties -- each comes with an elasticized band that can be adjusted for any neck size -- and 10 varieties of sunglasses.
The funky fitments are available at a number of local retail locations, including For the People (106 Osborne St.), the Haberdashery (84 Albert St.) and Forks Trading Company (second level of The Forks Market), or online at www.offthewood.ca.
"Franck approached us in July, wondering if we'd be interested in carrying his bow ties and sunglasses," said Megan Basaraba, general manager of Forks Trading Company. "It was actually really good timing, because we were about to introduce Manitoban- and Canadian-made apparel to our store for the first time, so his stuff went hand-in-hand with the types of items we were bringing in."
Last month, Basaraba hosted a clothing launch party at her store. Ndayubashe showed up in person to model his bow ties and shades for those in attendance.
"He looked really sharp and was a good feature of the party," Basaraba said, noting Off the Wood's products have been a big hit so far. "I don't know if everybody realizes they're made out of wood at first glance, but as soon as they figure it out, they're almost always like, 'Wow, are these ever cool -- especially the ones made out of skateboard material.' "
It's go, go, go for Ndayubashe these days; he still clocks eight hours a day at his regular job, but evenings and weekends are reserved for Off the Wood.
Last Saturday, he flew to Edmonton to promote his line of products to store owners in that city. He hopes to have his ties and glasses in shops and boutiques from coast to coast within a year.
That said, his goal remains the same -- to use some of the profits from Off the Wood to assist people in Burundi.
"Sometimes, you see places on TV where there is a lot of poverty, but you might not care as much because you've never been there. But it's different when you have an emotional attachment to a place... I can't sit around and wait for somebody else to do it."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2015 D11.