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Dining scene heats up in Powell River

Local restaurant industry sees increase in traffic and options
FINE DINING: Restaurant patrons Judy Hickling [left] and Karen Whyard recently enjoyed lunch at one of many successful restaurants in the Powell River area. Jason Schreurs photo

Gone are the days of limited choices and limited menus; Powell River’s dining scene is better than ever, according to restaurateurs and the customers who frequent their establishments.

The increase in tourists over the past couple of summers does play a factor in success, but the biggest reason is the steady and solid customer base of residents that are eating out more often, according to local restaurant owners such as Sarah Salome and Telis Savvaidis.

“I don’t think our demographic has changed,” said Salome, who owns Coastal Cookery and Costa del Sol Latin Cuisine. “I just don’t think they necessarily had a place to go for what we do, and we filled a niche.”

Savvaidis, who has owned Snickers Restaurant for 21 years, cites tourists in town for attractions such as Sunshine Coast Trail, and those passing through town to go nearby islands, as quantifiable ways to gauge new customers, especially in the past two years.

“You’re seeing a different palate on people as well,” said Savvaidis. “They are willing to try dishes that are more experimental, which is wonderful for anyone cooking, because that’s our passion.”

Diners are noticing the shift as well. With a number of ethnic options such as Indian, Mexican and Vietnamese, residents have more choices to try new styles of food.

Residents Judy Hickling and Karen Whyard, who recently enjoyed Hickling’s birthday lunch at Coastal Cookery, said they have definitely noticed a shift.

“There are more restaurants than there used to be,” said Hickling, “and it’s a good variety.”

Hickling and Whyard said they go out to restaurants at least two or three times per month and the variety in dining choices is a factor.

“There are quite a few more restaurants and it’s great,” said Whyard. “It’s nice to have those options.”

Powell River now has the restaurants and menus to support a thriving food scene, according to Salome, who opened Costa del Sol in the summer of 2012 and Coastal Cookery just two years later. Salome and her husband were visiting Powell River four years ago when they noticed the building Costa del Sol now occupies on Marine Avenue was for sale. With restaurant experience in the Lower Mainland, the Salomes decided to take a chance and start a business here.

“We did little due diligence about researching the town, but we knew the restaurant that was formerly there was busy at one point, so if we bought ourselves a job for a few years, that was our worst-case scenario,” said Salome. “But it didn’t turn out like that.”

Salome said when they were offered to lease the much bigger Coastal Cookery space, the decision was clear.

“We knew if we said no, someone else would say yes. So we couldn’t afford not to do it,” says Salome. “But the reason we really felt confident about it was that we were turning people away from Costa every day we operated because we couldn’t seat them, so we knew there was a market to be had.”

With several new restaurants opening in the past year, Savvaidis said it is a good opportunity for restaurants to carve out their own niche and focus their menus on speciality items.

In Savvaidis’ case, that means more Greek food items. As Powell River grows and diversifies, restaurants are able to specialize more, said Savvaidis.

“In the past there were things you needed to have on your menu,” said Savvaidis. “Now we are able to experiment with more Greek food, and that’s our niche.”

Salome and Savvaidis said they welcome new restaurants to town and are happy to share advice to upstart restaurateurs looking to fill their own niche.

“Get out of the box and scratch cook; keep it fresh for people,” said Savvaidis. “It might take a little longer, but you will enjoy doing it more. And when you enjoy what you’re doing as a chef, you will create wonderful food.”

Salome added that the business side of running a restaurant is crucial and without that foundation even the best chef will struggle to be successful.

“Focus on your operations. Don’t get sidetracked by other things,” said Salome. “It’s all about the food and service, and hopefully everything else will work out.”

Salome added she would like to see restaurant owners collaborating to develop food programs that Powell River residents and tourists alike can appreciate as the local food scene becomes more and more popular.

“It would be great to see us all work together for a common theme for customers. One of things people say they love the most about Powell River is our food,” said Salome. “In a small city they don’t expect to get multiple places to enjoy a great meal, and that is something we should be proud of and celebrate. And it would be great to celebrate that together.”