East­ward Ho!

Vancouver Magazine - - Featuring - Matt O’Grady by An­drew Querner pho­to­graphs by

Are sky­rock­et­ing com­mer­cial rents crush­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of restau­rant in­no­va­tion?

While we panic about the cost of hous­ing in Vancouver, com­mer­cial rents have qui­etly sky­rock­eted. Why should you care? Be­cause the eco­nomics of your lo­cal restau­rant de­pend on them and the bot­tom line doesn’t look good. Matt O’Grady delves into the trou­bling numbers.

meet Seán Heather on a snowy Fri­day two weeks be­fore Christ­mas in his flag­ship gas­tropub, the Ir­ish Heather. It’s 10:30 in the morn­ing and al­ready he says he’s had over a dozen can­cel­la­tions for din­ner be­cause of the weather. Not that he’s wor­ried: “I have 160 seats here,” says the gruff 50-year-old, who in­sists on do­ing the in­ter­view at the bar, stand­ing up, in the still-un­lit room. “We’ll eas­ily do 400 people through the door tonight.”

When he opened the Ir­ish Heather in Gas­town two decades ago, success was no sure thing. Heather was born in Toronto but moved to Ire­land as atod­dler, and had only re­turned to his mother’s na­tive Canada—this time, to Vancouver—in his early 20s to launch his restau­rant ca­reer. Af­ter man­ag­ing Benny’s Bagels in Kit­si­lano for four years, the am­bi­tious Lim­er­ick­man de­cided he wanted to open his own place. “I knew every­body in Kits, so it made the most sense for me to open some­thing there. But there was noth­ing I could af­ford any­where in Kits. Ial­most gave up.”

At the last minute, his real es­tate agent sug­gested he con­sider Gas­town—then, much more so than now, a haven for drug users and petty crime. “I’d never been to Gas­town in the seven or eight years I’d been in Vancouver,” re­calls Heather. But he says it re­minded him of the streets of Dublin or Lon­don, where he’d worked as a dish­washer, and he found agreat lease in the his­toric Al­ham­bra build­ing—across the road from his cur­rent lo­ca­tion. He ini­tially built his busi­ness on what he now calls the “naive” con­cept of “serv­ing the per­fect pint of Guin­ness,” but in time the Ir­ish Heather was earn­ing equal ac­claim for its food pro­gram. (It moved across the road in 2008, when the Al­ham­bra had to un­dergo seis­mic up­grad­ing.)

Twenty years af­ter open­ing the restau­rant, he’s the undis­puted god­fa­ther of Gas­town. He, along with wife and busi­ness part­ner Erin, has par­layed that one restau­rant into a thriv­ing mini-em­pire—one that also in­cludes neigh­bour­ing Salty Tongue, She­been Whiskey House (in the back of the Ir­ish Heather) and Salt Tast­ing Room, in Blood Al­ley, within sight of where we’re speak­ing. While Heather has man­aged to build a di­verse port­fo­lio of restau­rants, he won­ders what the fu­ture is for the area—and the busi­ness.

“Our in­dus­try—with a few ex­cep­tions—is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a bunch of busi­nesses owned by old fo­geys and chains. There might be places in Mount Pleas­ant, places like that, but even there the rents are start­ing to scream up. Idon’t know where in the down­town core, like Gas­town, this kind of op­por­tu­nity presents it­self for young people.”

When he launched the Ir­ish Heather in 1997, he was pay­ing $16 a square foot; it’s now more than dou­ble that amount. “I’ve been re­new­ing (my leases) at cur­rent mar­ket rates. It’s dra­mat­i­cally gone up. But I’ve been able to de­velop my busi­ness to where I can af­ford those rents. If I were start­ing out at those rates? Well, I just wouldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have done it.”

The story of Vancouver’s otherworldly real es­tate mar­ket has been told in me­dia around the world in re­cent years, but only now are we hear­ing about the trickle-down ef­fect on quo­tid­ian cor­ner­stones of the lo­cal econ­omy: the gas sta­tions clos­ing to be re­de­vel­oped as con­dos, the gar­den cen­tres flee­ing for greener pas­tures on the city’s fringes, the restau­ra­teurs pushed east as rents push north.

While Heather laments what’s hap­pen­ing around him, the man who in­her­ited the orig­i­nal site for the Ir­ish Heather—Paul Grun­berg, co-owner of L’Abat­toir—has a more Dar­winian take on the restau­rants that will sur­vive in the com­pet­i­tive down­town scene.

“If you want to make more money, you’ve got to go out and work harder. I know that may come across as be­ing in­sen­si­tive, but from a guy who’s

“I’d never been to Gas­town in the seven or eight years I’d been in Vancouver,” re­calls Heather.

Seán Heather’s jour­ney from wash­ing dishes in Dublin to run­ning a mini-Gas­town em­pire was not with­out its bumps, but the in­dus­try vet­eran won­ders how new restau­ra­teurs will make a go of it in to­day’s cli­mate.

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