If you happen to be in Courtenay, B.C., and are planning to have dinner at Il Falcone, a classic Italian restaurant owned by former Vancouverite Andrey Durbach, you will unfortunately have to wait until it reopens Nov. 12.
One of the perks of moving to the country – a path more chefs, restaurateurs and hospitality workers are choosing or at least contemplating these days – is the financial freedom to close for a full month in autumn.
“The lifestyle thing was a big reason for coming out here three years ago,” says Mr. Durbach, who usually goes to Italy during his annual hiatus, but will be touring the Okanagan this year.
The main motivation was commercial independence. Mr. Durbach owned many restaurants in the big city (including Étoile, Parkside, La Buca and Pied-à-Terre) but not the properties.
“It was a goal that just could not be achieved in Vancouver. There was nothing to buy and very little to rent. After a while, it was like looking for Sasquatch.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is said to be driving an exodus from the cities as urbanites reassess their priorities and search for greener pastures. Whether this shift is actually happening en masse is still up for debate.
But it’s clear that restaurants in downtown Vancouver and Victoria, which are dependent on office workers and international tourism, are hurting more than their counterparts in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, where locals live and continue to play.
According to Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, business at downtown restaurants is down 20 to 30 per cent, while restaurants in the suburbs and some tourist regions have been performing well during the pandemic “if not better” than they did last year.
Anecdotally, I know of five chefs and restaurant managers who are actively negotiating deals outside Vancouver. While it’s premature to write about those pending transactions, this is not a new trend. Over the past few years, as the cost of running a restaurant in the city has become less and less affordable, the outward trickle has been gaining momentum. The pandemic, it would appear, is merely accelerating relocation decisions that were already in motion and making the dream of escape even more attractive.
Mr. Durbach and his wife, Sian, didn’t buy just Il Falcone – a charming old yellow house surrounded by fig, quince and cherry trees. They also purchased a 3,500-square-foot riverfront home – “for the price of a small one-bedroom apartment in downtown Vancouver.”
And the way he describes it, the life of a restaurateur in the Comox Valley sounds positively idyllic: an eight-minute commute past cornfields filled with deer and rabbits; amazing local farms; pristine shellfish; a great cheesemaker just down the road who makes fresh burrata; a small community where people are genuinely nice to each other in the supermarket; and sophisticated customers who have plenty of disposable income and an appreciation for gastronomy.
“Psychologically, it’s been a very good experience,” Mr. Durbach said when I visited in August, looking more chipper than I’d seen him in years.
A few weeks later, he had to temporarily close the restaurant because of a potential COVID-19 exposure. But even that didn’t drag him down.
“One of the benefits of living in a smaller, more tightly knit community is that you really get their unqualified support rather than having them treat you like a pariah for something that’s totally not your fault,” he later said by phone.
“The night we reopened, we were full.”
Over in the Okanagan Valley, all eyes are on chef Ned Bell and his wife, publicist Kate Colley, who purchased the historic Naramata Inn last February (after two years of pursuing the deal) with partners Maria Wiesner and Paul Holland.
“There are opportunities galore up here,” says the former Ocean Wise chef and TV personality, who was still packing in the restaurant last week – 85 covers on a Wednesday in mid-October – after coming off the wine region’s busiest summer season in years.
“For ambitious entrepreneurs, the risk-reward ratio is pretty great. I don’t want to say it’s cheaper because the restaurant business is challenging no matter where you’re located. But the opportunities are good because there is less competition.”
Mr. Bell has been able to recruit some amazing front-of-house talent, including Emily Walker, an early adopter who moved to the Okanagan to work remotely (or more directly with wineries, depending on how you look at it) as the group sommelier for Tap & Barrel Restaurants, and wine consultant Kurtis Kolt.
But he says year-round staffing is still a struggle in a region that attracts a massive influx of seasonal workers.
“We’re in a small village, 20 minutes outside Penticton. We need more people and need more staff accommodation. If we had a really great bakery or coffee shop or grocery store or second restaurant or catering business, maybe that would draw more people.”
On Galiano Island, where I caught up with chef Melanie Witt by phone this week after she finished stacking wood for Charmer – a new pizza parlour with only outdoor seating, which is attached to the acclaimed destination restaurant Pilgrimme and opening soon – staffing is also an issue.
“It takes a special kind of person to move to Galiano. It’s a very quiet lifestyle. Other than the great outdoors, there’s really nothing here.”
Ms. Witt, previously executive chef at Vancouver’s Savio Volpe, gave her notice at the end of last year and moved to Galiano in March, just as the pandemic hit.
"It was strange timing and it was definitely wasn’t an easy decision even though I’d been dating Jesse [McCleery, the chef-owner of Pilgrimme] for a couple of years.
“But I never wanted to build an empire. The environment, the farms, the great products that we get to use here – these are the things that are important to me. I feel more aligned with my core values than I did in Vancouver. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. Things are changing quickly.”
Maybe quicker than she could have imagined. Last week, she saw a taxi driver scouting the island for possible relocation.
“Now that would be a game-changer.”
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