In 2004, a young couple open a Belgian restaurant on a forlorn stretch of Beatty Street. (Cue Twilight Zone opening music.) All they have are a credit card with a $5,000 limit, investors reckless enough to bet on an underdog, and their own passion and drive. A recipe for failure.
Six months later, they buy out their investors. Six years later, many former employees have launched their own establishments, and the dining scene has exploded with hip restaurants similar to theirs. Coincidence? No. You’ve just crossed over into the Chambar zone.
At first, Nico and Karri Schuermans found it tricky to get solid staff for their 562 Beatty Street restaurant. Nico was a chef with three-star Michelin training, but, as Karri explains over the phone, “Nobody knew who we were and people weren’t willing to jump ship to a new restaurant in the middle of nowhere.” Anyone? Anyone?
But as the restaurant gained a reputation, it wasn’t long before the Chambar constellation got its first star: David Fesq, the bar manager, who established a strong drink program at a time when muddled cocktails drew a “huh?” from most people in Vancouver. He left to run his family’s liquor distribution company in Australia.
Other alumni have stayed closer to home and become part of the growing Chambar empire on Beatty Street. Former Chambar sous chef David Robertson co-owns the Dirty Apron Cooking School (540 Beatty), and former server Robbie Kane co-owns Medina Cafe (556 Beatty).
Why such allegiance to the family tree? Karri and Nico practise a shocking concept called R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Employee benefits, kick-ass work parties (water-skiing and a Lebanese feast at Indian Arm), and day-to-day nurturing of staff individuality make team members feel valued as equals. Kane recalls encountering Nico on the job: “I said, ”˜Chef, may I speak?’ He said, ”˜Dude, my name is Nico. Don’t call me chef.’ ”
The Schuermans recognize that their staff have lives outside of work. As parents, they empathized with Kane’s demands as a single dad, and as owners, they championed his dream of opening his own place. They checked out restaurants for sale with him and offered to help with his business plan. Luckily, the space next to Chambar became available, and Medina Cafe was born.
So far, the lines of connection to Chambar have been straightforward. But prepare yourselves for a tangled web. “It’s a bit of a weird family tree,” Karri admits. Take Paul Grunberg, former Chambar GM, who went on to help launch Market by Jean-Georges at the Shangri-La Hotel, and more recently has lent a hand as a consulting manager at Bao Bei (163 Keefer Street), owned by ex-Chambar bartender Tannis Ling. He’s also at work on his own downtown venture, set to open this summer. (He’s pretty mum on details, but think fresh, local, and sustainable.)
“Karri and Nico are inspirational. They are mentors of mine, friends of mine,” says Grunberg on the phone. “The way they run their business, a young man or woman can look at them and say, ”˜I want to be an operator like that.’ ” From the Schuermans, he learned intangibles like humility and sincerity, as well as concretes like how to run an airtight system and leverage personal contacts. Grunberg says the Chambar magic motivated him and others to take that gutsy, close-your-eyes-and-leap move to start a restaurant.
One such person was Ling, who fantasized about opening a Chinese restaurant with a funky vibe and smart drink list. Chambar’s success in Crosstown made her own Chinatown location seem doable. “It led me to seek out a location that wasn’t quite so prominent or popular,” she says during a phone chat.
Just as your head is swirling with connections and names, enter Andre McGillivray whose trajectory bears witness to the Chambar reverberations. McGillivray managed Chambar in its initial year-and-a-half, and opened Boneta with ex-Chambar bar manager Mark Brand and a host of others. McGillivray left the Boneta partnership and opened the Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe (850 Thurlow Street) with Steve Da Cruz in February.
Sitting on one of his restaurant’s Tiffany-blue chairs, McGillivray declares that Chambar’s impact reaches beyond its own employees. “They showed the world that you can take a big risk, and do it smartly,” he says. He recalls people doing “the owl” at Chambar: looking around and around to figure out the formula for success.
If he’s right, the Chambar web is large indeed, and the restaurant is inspiring young restaurateurs from all over to strike out with their own vibrant rooms. “Chambar made Vancouver a whole lot cooler than it was,” says McGillivray. And with ex-Chambar server Roger Collins set for the April opening of his Calabash Bistro (428 Carrall Street), a Caribbean-themed restaurant that will showcase local musicians, it might get that much cooler.