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One of Vancouver’s most successful restaurateurs – an icon who pioneered the concept of a contemporary British Columbian cuisine, groomed countless industry leaders and set a benchmark for fine dining – says he is retiring, a victim of skyrocketing rents and property taxes.
John Bishop will be closing Bishop’s in Kitsilano on Aug. 1, after a multiaward-winning and influential 35-year run, because he says he can no longer afford to keep the doors open.
“The economic pressure on small businesses these days – the rising rents, the property taxes, the general cost of operations – well, it tends to keep you awake at night,” Mr. Bishop, 75, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Until recently, Mr. Bishop had been protected from rising rents by an accommodating landlord who owned the two-storey building at 2183 West 4th Ave., in the bustling thoroughfare of Vancouver’s tony Kitsilano neighbourhood.
Mr. Bishop’s landlord died four years ago and the estate has since boosted the rent. “Not by a huge amount,” Mr. Bishop says. But the property taxes have become untenable. The property was recently appraised at $5-million. Mr. Bishop pays one-third of the taxes and overhead on the building – approximately $19,000 last year, in addition to licensing permits ($2,468) and rent ($60,600).
“I don’t want to retire, but I don’t want to get to the point where I would have to declare bankruptcy, not after all these years. I thought about putting this in the press release. I didn’t want to cry the blues. But that’s the real story. I’m closing the restaurant because I'm no longer able to maintain it.”
Ian Tostenson, president and chief executive of the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association, says this “shocking” news will be a sobering wake-up call for politicians.
“People think if you’re John Bishop, you’ve got it made. He’s the classiest guy in the industry. And he’s there every night – not off in some office – practically parking the cars by himself.
“If this is what it’s going to take to get everyone to wake up and realize that Vancouver is no longer a place where people can afford to do business, then it’s really sad.”
Skyrocketing land values in certain commercial districts – the result of speculative buying or rezoning allowing greater density – have pushed assessments and tax bills up and have hammered small businesses.
Almost all business owners who rent are required to pay the taxes for the building they occupy – what’s known as a triple-net lease. The way the property-tax system works now, commercial properties are assessed based on sales of nearby properties with similar characteristics. That means the low-rise building where Mr. Bishop’s restaurant is could end up with the same valuation as if a multistorey condo complex with retail along the bottom was built there.
The assessed value of the building has more than doubled in only four years, going from $3.7-million in 2016 to $8.4-million in 2020 for the building, which has a few apartments over the restaurant.
Cities in the Lower Mainland have been asking for relief, but when the province unveiled it’s solution last week, the mayors said it was so deeply flawed as to be unworkable.
The Welsh-born chef’s contribution to the culinary scene has been huge. He opened Bishop’s in 1985 after being fired as head chef by the comptroller at Il Giardino, which had been hard hit by the recession.
He wasn’t the first Vancouver chef to celebrate local ingredients, but he was the most influential and famous, especially after 10 years on television with Umberto Menghi. At a time when most restaurants were still flying in Dover sole from Europe, he put Pacific sablefish on the menu, and cultivated strong relationships with farms and foragers. By the early aughts, his menu was almost all organic.
“John Bishop has always been known as the grandfather of local eating in Vancouver,” says Burdock & Co.’s Andrea Carlson, one of many female chefs he employed at a time when restaurants were still boys’ clubs.
One of the last small fine-dining holdouts in Vancouver, Bishop’s set a high bar for gracious hospitality in an elegant room, where the tables are still set with white linen and antique silverware. The walls, cleaned with a fresh coat of paint every year, have always been adorned with the works of local artists (many long before they were famous), including Bill Reid, Gordon Smith, Robert Davidson, Toni Onley and Jack Shadbolt.
“John has a subtle way of making every customer feel like they’re the most important person in the room,” says Vikram Vij of Vij’s, one of many in an illustrious list of alumnus that includes James Walt (Araxi) and Adam Busby (now a director at the Culinary Institute of America).
“This restaurant is still such a cute little place,” says Mr. Bishop, who had hoped to go out on a higher note, but felt “obligated” to ring the alarm bells for the rest of the industry. “It would be the perfect restaurant for a young chef to take over. But how would they even begin to pay the costs?”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified artist Robert Davidson.