FOODIE MECCA: Kelowna's burgeoning eateries a sign of strong economy

Food critic Jamie Maw at Okanagan Table

Redevelopment the old Rose’s Pub site in downtown Kelowna is just the latest in a string of new food and beverage outlets opening or planned in Kelowna.

The Rose’s site at the Grand Okanagan hotel is now owned by Cactus Club and plans submitted to the city call it Kelowna Waterfront Restaurant.

Four weeks ago, Rod Butters opened his fifth food outlet in Kelowna. Called Okanagan Table it’s more of a catering and events business but does serve lunch. It’s on Pandosy Street in downtown Kelowna.

Not far away, on Lawrence, is Chris Shaften’s second venture (after Krafty Kitchen) called the Orchard Room that opened in June, the same month the Landmark District Market opened with a number of eateries.

In August it was Skinny Duke’s Glorious Emporium replacing the old Sturgeon Hall.

Coming up, in the “Packing District” along Clement, are a number of craft brew pubs to join those nearby on Richter Street. Just to name a few. And that doesn't even include the amazing offerings from the region's wineries, bringing tables back to farms.

“I’ve always maintained, no matter what city you’re in, if you go to a few restaurants and talk to the chef and go to a market you can tell what’s going on almost immediately because restaurants are such an accurate barometer of the local economy,” renowned food critic and journalist Jamie Maw told iNFOnews.ca while lunching at Okanagan Table. “If you see a lot of restaurants opening, it means people have disposable income. If you see a lot of restaurants closing suddenly, you know the general economy is starting to flag.”

It was fitting to meet with Maw at the Okanagan Table because Butters and his partner Audrey Surrao are showing their confidence in the Kelowna economy by opening this venture. They are also some of the people who triggered what is a now a burgeoning food experience in Kelowna.

Jamie Maw, left, in his journalist role taking a picture of Rod Butters, co-owner of the recently opened Okanagan Table.
Jamie Maw, left, in his journalist role taking a picture of Rod Butters, co-owner of the recently opened Okanagan Table.

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They came from the Wickaninnish Inn near Tofino and the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver to start Fresco in 2001 as a high end new restaurant – just as the American tourism industry dropped off after 9-11. That’s now been converted to RauDZ with more casual dining and they’ve opened other eateries.

They’ve recently been joined by chef Bernard Casavant who, along with his many culinary achievements, became Culinary Manager of the Wine, Food and Tourism program at Okanagan College. It’s a highly regarded training facility that’s helping fuel the growing foodie vibe in the city.

But it hasn’t been an overnight change for Kelowna.

“I think it’s been happening over the last 10 years,” Butters said. “When I look back, I think a lot of restaurateurs and, certainly chefs, saw the perceived success we were having in our early years. I think it made a bit of a safer jump for them to leave the big cities.”

In 2015, Maw published an article in B.C. Business magazine about the changing face of Kelowna as high tech and UBCO were drawing more young people to the city. At that time, housing costs were 40 per cent less than Vancouver so young people could sell their homes, buy bigger ones in Kelowna and have money in the bank.

The Vancouver market has softened a bit since then but the dynamic is still the same, he said.

He visited a number of restaurants and pubs during his week-long stay here and saw many of them buzzing with activity, even in midafternoon when many people are tied to their desk jobs.

The Curious is doing very well,” Maw gave as one of many examples. “It was quite full mid-afternoon yesterday. A very hip, younger crowd. They’re techies. They make their own hours.”

That makes for less down time at the cafes and pubs, which helps the bottom line in a very competitive business.

These people are moving to Kelowna not just for the tech jobs but because there are people like Butters here to cater to their culinary desires.

“I’ve always been a been a big believer in ‘if you build it, they will come,’” he said. “There wasn’t that much here in the Okanagan (when he came in 2001). You have to provide the services for people in order for them to utilize it. There’s a younger demographic here. I think that helps.”

That means people like himself have to take the risk, open the restaurants and hope the clientele builds.

“Someone’s got to do it,” he said. “I’m an entrepreneurial spirit so I don’t have a choice.”

But it’s not just renowned chefs like Butters who have made the city a dining mecca.

Maw pointed to “aggregators” like Earl’s and Cactus Club that provide a wide range of quality food and good wine lists. Even his daughters, some of whom have their own restaurants, will choose an evening out at Cactus Club if there’s a large group of them with varying tastes.

And, despite his wide travels and thousands of restaurant reviews, he still loves old standbys like Mama Rosa’s that have been in Kelowna for decades.

Maw no longer writes reviews but is big on cleanliness so he offered this tip.

“I walk in the alley behind every restaurant I review, before I walk in,” Maw said. “Alley sanitation will tell you a lot of what you need to know.”


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