A town of good taste

Boom in new restaurants fills a Ladysmith void while tantalizing local tongues

Arnold Dinh

Arnold Dinh

It’s a Friday night on High Street.

No longer can you drop a bowling ball at the doctor’s office and wait for the sploosh of it hitting the harbour 40 seconds later.

In fact, with the amount of cars lining each side of the street, that ball would be lucky to make it across First Avenue.

Fox and Hounds, the new pub-style restaurant that opened in December in the old Home Hardware building is packing in the patrons. When the Beantime Cafe across the street has some music playing, the two eateries can combine for a nightlife that hasn’t been seen in downtown Ladysmith since the days of when the town had six beer parlours.

And while Fox and Hounds may own Fridays at the moment, it is certainly not alone in riding a cresting wave of good taste in Ladysmith,

An informal head count reveals it is one of three new restaurants to have opened in town in the past few months, with reports of two more on the way soon. All this on top of at least five new outlets to have opened since 2013.

Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce manager Mark Drysdale said he’s not sure about the reason for this boom in good taste. But he says it can’t be seen as anything other than a good thing for Ladysmith.

“I would say was certainly the downturn hit us pretty hard, but it’s bounce-back time,” he said. “They seem to be choosing (a variety of styles). I don’t know whether it’s good luck or good management. What I get feedback on is the quality of the food and service.”

While the economy may play a role, two other factors could be timing and need. Ricky’s has developed a strong presence as the local family restaurant and there is a plentiful mix of Chinese and fast food places in town. But with two longtime Ladysmith staples, George’s and Northbrook  calling it a day in recent years, and other niches not being represented, investors saw opportunity.

Fox and Hounds ownerJane Ivens is a Cedar resident whose kids had gone to school here. She and husband Trevor had opened two successful pubs in Nanaimo, but their hearts were pointed south.

“If we wanted to go out somewhere like this, there wasn’t anything in this direction,” she said. “There were a lot of vacant buildings when we started to look. Sometimes there’s a domino effect.”

Stelur, the new diner of First Avenue, fits that profile too. Its owners had a concept in mind, and looked around for the best location before investing on the 49th parallel.

“I’ve been in Qualicum and other places and they always just seemed flooded,” Stelur chef and business partner Steve White said. “(Ladysmith) just looked like a nice little niche.”

Stelur is attempting to carve out its territory as the town’s old-style ’50s diner. Oceans, in the old Barb’s Kitchen location, is a seafood place. D’Franco’s has Mediterranean cuisine. The Spice Hut is Indian. Sushi Wara serves Japanese. The Wild Poppy’s focus is gluten-free and PK’s has a bit of everything.

None were operating two years ago.

Their owners are not walking an easy road. Restaurants are a lot of hard work to operate, staffing is a constant issue and the business is very competitive. Still, according to the January outlook published by Restaurants Canada, the industry is doing well. Thirty-eight per cent of operators reported increased revenues in the past quarter, while only 23 percent reported declines — the lowest number recorded since the report began in 2011.

“You look at the one that’s in our building, they invested heavily in that establishment,” Drysdale said.

That one is Stelur, which transformed the old Chronicle office on First Avenue into a scene out Happy Days. Fox and Hounds invested roughly $250,000 in transforming an old hardware store into a version of a British-style pub.

With the Music Hall Food Company planned for Roberts Street and the opening of a new eatery at Ladysmith Marina in the cards, it raises the question of too much of a good thing. Operators have faith that’s not the case.

“I think there’s enough pie there for everyone,” White said. His partner, Lurene Haines, agreed, pointing to the variety available.

“We were very conscious of that. We made a conscious decision not to compete with existing businesses,” she said.

Ivens feels the same way.

“Everyone is different. Everyone does what they do. We’ve been true to what we are and that’s why it works,” she said. “You don’t want to live in a town where there’s only one restaurant. People are going to wonder why. You can’t go out if there’s no place to go.”

The consensus seems to be be more restaurants should mean more people downtown, which should mean more potential shoppers, which should mean more potential eaters — a circle that everyone in town can feed off and appreciate.

“I really do believe it’s the beginning of a turnaround,” Drysdale said.

“I think Ladysmith is absolutely swimming with potential,” Haine added. “I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to open a business there.”