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Adjusting to business in the Downtown Eastside

Calabash co-owners Roger Collins, Sam Willcocks and Cullin David at their restaurant in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside February 16, 2012

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

What's a restaurateur to do when drug dealers are selling goods out front in full view of customers sitting in what he wryly calls the "front-row seats" of his Downtown Eastside establishment?

It's an ongoing dilemma for Calabash, the 70-seat Caribbean bistro that opened in 2010 and has been doing very well.

But that business can, at times, be problematic. The challenges are no different from those facing any of the new crowd of cool Eastside eateries, and veteran chef Cullin David, a partner in the business, says patience and respect are the key to dealing with them.

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"If you go out there and say, 'Can you bloody move. Get ... off my street,' you're going to have issues,' " Mr. David said. "But if you ask them nicely and say, 'We're trying to do our business. I know you guys are doing your thing, just try and do it over there' – that has been the best, most amicable way to handle it."

Often, he says, it's just a matter of shifting the business 10 feet or so out of sight of customers tucking into ackee and salt fish, goat curry, oxtail and other dishes on the Calabash menu.

All of this is a nightly exercise – a new twist in their restaurant careers. Mr. David was chef for a dozen years at a South-of-France-themed restaurant in posh Yaletown. His partners in Calabash are 31-year-old Sam Willocks, who came to Calabash after several years running a French bistro in the central downtown area of Vancouver, and Roger Collins, another veteran in the business.

Mr. Willocks, like Mr. David, likes many aspects of being in the neighbourhood. "The people are actually more respectful than a lot of higher-end neighbourhoods – just doing their thing, sticking to their business," he said.

Mr. Willocks said his wife wondered, ahead of opening up, whether he really would be able to cope with being in the neighborhood, but he has grown used to it. "I thought it would be worse than it is," he said.

And Calabash has yet to experience a break-in or even a broken window. Mr. Willocks's previous restaurant had about seven in five years.

His theories on that include neighbourhood respect for Calabash and the reality that people are around the restaurant day and night. "I thought we would get broken into and have to pay for bars [on windows] which are super expensive. It's kind of interesting being down here and not broken into."

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