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Sometimes, it’s a throwaway line in an interview that will prove every bit as illuminating as the obvious gold-star quotes.
Take the Straight’s interview with long-time Alibi Room co-owner Nigel Springthorpe. One of the Vancouver craft beer scene’s most important and respected players, Springthorpe is on the line to discuss the closure of a business he founded, and which will be taken over by Victoria-based company Four Top as of December 23.
Don’t worry, the Alibi team hand-picked the new owners, and plans for the future are very much “the song remains the same”.
A lot get discussed during the conversation—this history of the Alibi, what makes the room special, and the way beautiful memories can sometimes get you through tough times. When it’s time to say “Thanks, for the talk”, Springthorpe quickly counters with: “No, thank you. I appreciate that you guys even give a shit, and wanna let people know what’s going on here.”
Consider that something of a found poem. Springthorpe has played a huge role in the Vancouver craft-beer boom—today he also runs Brassneck Brewery in Mount Pleasant and the Magnet (with its 30 beers on tap) on West Pender. But despite being something of a rock star in the game, he remains humble, grateful, and honoured to have a devoted base of admirer’s—even if he’s never call them that.
Those characteristics are particularly true of his time at the Alibi Room, where his partners have included his wife Kerry Springthorpe, brother-in-law/chef Greg Armstrong, and Armstrong’s wife Raya Audet.
Before the best-known incarnation of the space, Springthorpe spent seven years working at a then-cocktail-fixated Alibi Room before taking it on as an owner.
Right from the time he took over, he had a vision.
“Movie guys originally owned the place, and they kind of wanted a place where their friends could hang out for things like script readings,” Springthorpe told the Straight in 2019. “It kind of had an air of ‘It’s for you, but it’s not for you’—there was kind of an exclusivity thing. I figured it would be a better use of the place if it was for everybody. That’s why the beer thing fits in. Beer is a drink for everybody, unlike a fancy cocktail.”
As a Brit from Northern England, Springthorpe arrived in Vancouver in his teens in the ’90s, surprised at the way beer was often given short-shrift in restaurants and bars. Along with his three partners and family members, he changed that at the Alibi Room, which is famous today for having an average of 50 different beers on tap. The space quickly became the preferred hangout of Lower Mainland beer aficionados, serving as the inspiration and launching pad for go-to events like Vancouver Craft Beer Week.
“We knew that there were things we could do with the space,” Springthorpe says. “But we always kept in mind that there was something about the place, the building, the roof, and the uniqueness of the location—with its wedge shape and windows on either side—that was special. Nothing is ever going to get built in front of the view. We knew it was a place that we couldn’t control and that we had no power over.
“That was good,” he continues. “If you think that you’ve got everything figured out, and got the goose that laid the golden egg, you end up losing your humility. If you think everything you do is perfect you lose people. We really maintained the idea that, yes, this room is us, but there’s also something about the place.”
In many ways it only made sense that the Alibi Room was a family project, in recent years Kerry Springthorpe running the front of the bar along with Audet, and Armstrong in charge of the kitchen.
Sometimes change happens naturally, and sometimes there are other forces at play. Looking at the Alibi Room, Springthorpe opines that, on one hand, it was time for a fresh vision.
“To me, a lot of what the room needs is fresh energy and new eyes,” he offers. “Somebody to maybe hover above because we were always entwined so deeply. When that’s the case you’re not always making decisions clearly. You’re there for so long that, whether it’s the right way or the wrong way, that’s kind of how you do it.”
But the decision to move on was also, in some ways, made for the four owners. While he’s now on the road to recover, Armstrong received a devastating and rare bone cancer diagnosis in early 2021. Springthorpe notes that he’s doing better today than anyone would have expected, but that there was, understandably, a resetting of priorities. After relocating to Powell River with Audet, the chef and Alibi Room mainstay is today rehabbing and living a more relaxed life.
“I think it really put every everything in perspective,” Springthorpe says.
The four partners were deeply intertwined on every level.
“The other layer of the story is that, not only were we in business at the Alibi Room for almost 17 years together, but we also lived together in Vancouver in a Vancouver special duplex,” Springthorpe reveals. “So when they decided to move on it wasn’t just the business that was affected, but it was also kind of our whole home life. I have three kids and they have a daughter, so there were cousins that were connected—they’d be like ‘Just going upstairs to play.’ So it’s been a massive adjustment on all levels. No one’s been affected more than Greg, and Raya, but the diagnosis sent shockwaves through our whole lives.”
Given the memories tied to the Alibi Room, making sure the right people were taking it over was extra important.
“It had to be a particular kind of new operator,” Springthorpe says with a laugh. “There are so many quirks and foibles to that place that it had to be someone going into it realistically, and who had lots of experience. Dave Craggs, who is the CEO of the Four Top group, has owned Ferris’ in Victoria for 32 years. It’s another one of those institution-type places that’s in a nice old building that has been around for a really long time, and always manages to stay relevant and do the right things. It was just a good fit.”
As for what’s going to be the Springthorpe’s final night on sight as co-owner on December 23, he notes that folks will have no trouble finding him moving forward thanks to the Brassneck Brewery and Magnet. That’s not, however, going to make the end of an era any less poignant.
“Not having anything to do with the Alibi is painful in a lot of ways,” he freely admits. “It’s been such a huge part of our lives for so long. But, really, we feel like it’s time.”
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