Downtown Eastside restaurants respond to antipoverty activists
Anywhere else, Cartems Donuterie could probably sell $3 pork-sprinkled pastries in peace. But at its pop-up location at 408 Carrall Street across from Pigeon Park on a recent Tuesday morning, area advocate Ivan Drury was causing a scene.
“The mere fact that this place exists is an aggression,” Drury hollered in the lineup, which was about eight people long, and mostly men in business attire. He stared down the line, asking people: “Excuse me, are you from this neighbourhood?”
Drury, who had never set foot in Cartems before, was there to tour new eateries in the Downtown Eastside. He’s been the most outspoken activist slamming the restaurants, including organizing a community meeting in March to raise awareness about what he characterizes as their “violent” impact on the residents of the neighbourhood.
In line, the man just ahead of him said, “Actually, I am from the neighbourhood.”
He explained that he was Tarry Giannakos, an owner of Revolver Coffee (325 Cambie Street), which opened last summer. “So I guess I’m one of the ones causing problems for you,” he said jovially. “Sorry about that.”
After an awkward silence, the line moved along and Drury selected a citrus doughnut. Later, Drury refused to eat it or have his photo taken with it, saying that he “felt dirty” having entered Cartems. “If people open a restaurant here, they should realize they’re part of a social cleansing and there’s nothing they can do to make it better,” Drury, a Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council board member, told the Georgia Straight that morning.
He said a legacy of abusive foster care, residential schools, and prison shape the neighbourhood. It’s a place, he said, where those whose lives have been marked by constant violence can find a sense of stability and acceptance.
“The capitalist economy comes in with its restaurants, boutiques, and condos, and it’s hostile to those bonds. What can they do to make up for destroying that? Nothing. If restaurant owners want to help the neighbourhood, they should not open restaurants here.”
It’s a statement that comes after the fact. Over the past several years, plenty of eateries have opened, including Acme Cafe, Save On Meats, Catch 122, and Bitter Tasting Room on West Hastings Street; Au Petit Chavignol on East Hastings Street; Meat & Bread on Cambie Street; Big Lou’s Butcher Shop and Fat Dragon Bar-B-Que on Powell Street; Dunlevy Snackbar on Dunlevy Avenue, and Calabash Bistro on Carrall Street. More are opening soon.
In the same period, several restaurants serving resident-affordable food have closed, including Uncle Henry’s Restaurant and Flowers Café on East Hastings Street, and Vic’s Restaurant on Main Street. However, many of the new restaurants are giving back to the community. The most famous is Save On Meats, owned by Mark Brand. Each day, his kitchen makes 480 meals for residents of Atira Women’s Resource Society buildings. He says that he “subsidizes” mammoth $1.50 breakfast sandwiches—which include generous ham and real Cheddar—and sells about 200 per day.
Brand also employs 30 residents of the neighbourhood, a model based on the West Hastings’ Potluck Café & Catering’s social enterprise, which accommodates a wider range of behaviours on the job. And, he told the Straight in a phone interview, he’s helping Grandview elementary start a breakfast program.
“It’s always a good idea to work with the community you’re in,” he said, pointing out that he attended the entire, hostile, antirestaurant meeting that Drury organized. “But it’s unfair for restaurants to be polarized like this. Mostly, they’re independent operations just trying to do their thing, and for a small group to rally against this is really unfair.”
Indeed, Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, said restaurants have no ethical obligation to provide food security in the area—although many restaurateurs are going above and beyond.
“The new breed of business owner down here does this stuff,” he told the Straight in a phone interview, noting that he’s heard Drury’s complaints about how stale, leftover food is given to residents. “We’re not always going to be successful, but we’re getting better and better about how to fit the social components into the business model. The more we do this, the more we learn.”
Sean Heather, who owns nine eateries and pubs within a five-minute walk from his office at Hastings and Carrall, said no one loses when the drug dealers leave the streets—except the drug dealers. He’s watched them disappear from in front of his businesses since he opened the Irish Heather more than a decade ago.
“Very few people open down here with the idea that they’re going to change the neighbourhood,” he said in an interview in the lobby of the old B.C. Electric Building, mentioning that he doesn’t like to promote his own charitable activities. “Those that do don’t last long. If your attitude is, ‘Don’t assimilate, dominate’, there’s always a backlash.”
At this point, though, there’s simply generalized backlash. Heather said Drury recently followed him up the street, shouting, “You’ve got the blood of the poor on your hands!”
At Cartems, home of Drury’s uneaten snack, owner Jordan Cash donates doughnuts to shelters and works with the Salvation Army’s historical Donut Day fundraiser, among other initiatives.
“We’re not blind to where we are,” Cash said in a phone interview with the Straight. “Drury is entitled to his feelings, and we welcome a discussion with him. Ultimately, we’re just a business trying to make an honest product, and we’re doing our best to coexist in the area.”