By Ed Staskus
There are thousands of moving parts to restaurants, from sourcing good food for the larder to wage and safety regulations to clearing the tables. Keeping the doors open is an exercise in controlling chaos. That’s why Calvin Trillin, the New York City food writer, has said he never eats in a restaurant more than one hundred feet off the ground.
It can be a way of life, a labor of love, and Dante’s Inferno all rolled up in one, especially if you are the owner and chef at the same time.
Restaurants are fine dining with a reserved atmosphere and noisy gastropubs and clam chowder shacks on the beach. All restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, need stoves and ovens and grills to prepare food. And no matter what kind of a restaurant it is, unless it’s a street takeaway or a food truck, it needs chairs, tables, and booths.
“There was a neighbor of mine up the road in Crapaud, a farmer, who had built tables for a little church fair,” said Eugene Sauve, the owner and chef of the Landmark Café in Victoria, a seacoast town on the Northumberland Strait side of Prince Edward Island. “I asked him if he would consider building tables and a whole bunch of chairs for me. A week later he said, I’ll do it for two thousand.”
A dozen some tables and forty chairs were made. It was 1988. “I didn’t have a formal plan, but it was all visually in my mind,” said Eugene. “I knew I wanted a big round one. The tables and chairs in the front and back dining rooms are still the originals. The big round table is still in the front.”
The Landmark Café, in the centuries old building that had once been Craig’s Grocery Store, opened on the day long-time Victoria resident Hope Laird drove her three-wheeled bicycle through the grand opening ceremonial ribbon. Almost everyone in town was there.
“When we were kids, we used to call Craig’s Store the Landmark,” she said. “Say meet you at the Landmark and all the kids would meet you there.”
“So, that’s what we called it,” said Eugene Sauve.
Restaurateurs open eateries because they are conversant with the business, are self-motivated, and are usually people with people skills. They are foodies who want to match a menu with what they love to do. Sometimes they are people who just like getting their hands wet and dirty, like to be on their feet all day, and like to work long, long hours.
Opening your own sit-down means pulling up your pants, pilgrim. It takes gumption and hard work the spread-out hours you are on your feet. It takes nerve, too. 50% of all restaurants go south inside of three years. After a decade more than 70% have closed their doors.
Why do friends let friends open restaurants?
“I remember having nightmares opening this place,” said Eugene. “All my friends were saying, you’re crazy, you’re wasting your money.”
What Eugene Sauve’s friends didn’t know was that he had worked in restaurants since he was 16-years-old, and had an outsize appetite, to boot. A business centering on an all-you-can-eat business plan made all the sense in the world. “Growing up I played a lot of hockey and I was always hungry,” he said.
“My father was very formal. He was a banker. He would come home from work, go upstairs, get out of his suit, come downstairs, sit down, and only then was supper served. So, I volunteered to help in the kitchen. I had three sisters, but they weren’t interested. My mom was an amazing great cook. One night, dinner would be Japanese, another Italian, another French.”
He helped her and helped himself. “Every time my mom turned her back in the kitchen I was eating.”
In the early 1970s Euene Sauve’s father, Eugene, Sr., was transferred from Quebec to British Columbia. He was the first French-Canadian to become vice-president of a major bank in western Canada. Eugene’s sisters, as they grew up, went into banking, too, following the lead of their father.
“I was the only one who got away,” said Eugene.
Before his father was a banker, he was a football player in high school and later joined the Canadian Navy.
“After his military service he became a loan officer in a bank. Sometimes loans would only be ten or twenty dollars and he would literally hound guys for fifty cents. It was right after the war and every penny counted. Since he had also once been a boxer, he was an ideal debt collector.”
After leaving home in the mid 70s Eugene was on the road and staying in a small coastal town in Portugal. It was where he found out for himself what good food was, the kind of food he describes to this day as something that “snaps and cracks.” It was the kind of food three decades after opening the Landmark Café he continues to procure and make and serve.
“When I was in Portugal the fishermen would come in, take a little nap, get dressed up, and walk around the plaza, drinking coffee and booze. Their women would go to work, sardines on the barbeque, dipped in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, with a big crusty roll. Those are my images of good food, good simple food.”
There’s a difference between good table manners and good food. No one needs a silver spoon to eat the best food.
By the 1980s, although his wanderlust had not, and has not to this day abated, he found himself living, working, and newly married in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “Julia was from New York, performing in a modern dance company. That’s how we met.” He was soon working in the performing arts and the father of the first of two children.
But his children didn’t grow up in PEI’s capital city. Charlottetown is the province’s largest city. They grew up in Victoria. It is one of the province’s smallest communities. “Erskine Smith, the director of the theater in Victoria, phoned me in April one day, out of the blue,” said Eugene. “He said, I’d like to have you at the Victoria Playhouse, would you come out to talk?”
The seaside town that is Victoria, once known simply as Lot 29, was founded in 1819. Besides landing fish, its livelihood was shipping potatoes and eggs to Europe and the West Indies. Today there are some year-round residents, but not many more than a hundred. Summer is what animates the former seaport of family-run fine and folk-art galleries, artisan chocolate and coffee shops, and the Victoria Playhouse. The Landmark Café is kitty-corner to the theater.
The town in April is quiet wet cold. “I had a half-hour, I walked around, and I instantly felt something here, something about this place. I got the job, and a month in someone at the theater says to me, there’s a house on the corner. I think the guy wants to sell it.” By the end of the summer Eugene Sauve and his nascent family were living in Victoria.
Two years later he approached Annie Craig about renting her grocery store to him for a new seasonal café to serve the theater’s playgoers.
“She had the post office, a bit of pension, although she wasn’t making a living at the store. But she said no,” said Eugene.
Two months later he approached her again. “This time I asked her if I could buy it. She said no, again.”
Annie Craig spent winters knitting sitting in a rocking chair in the back corner of the store. “Under our carpet you can see where she wore the floor out, rubbing her feet as she rocked,” said Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. “She wore through the tile and into the wood.”
The Craig’s Grocery Store building was almost two hundred years old. It had been gambled away in a card game and had once been sold with the bill of sale hand written on the back of a pack of cigarettes. Before it was a grocery it had a history of cobbling, butchering, and bootlegging.
Annie Craig called back the next spring. “You know what, I will sell to you,” she said.
“How much?” asked Eugene Sauve.
“Twenty thousand. I’m going to be firm on that,” she said.
“You got a deal,” he said.
“20 grand,” he thought after hanging up the phone. “Where am I going to get $20 grand?”
Entrepreneurs need capital to get going, but banks don’t like lending to start-up businesses. “They have no historical income,” said Tom Swenson, chief executive of an American bank. “If you are proposing a start-up business, you are de facto proposing something that doesn’t meet typical bank underwriting standards.”
If it’s a food-related business, they like it even less, because restaurants have high rates of default, no matter how much people like eating the food or how well known the chef might be. A healthy dose of skepticism is the default setting of most banks, or at least it should be. Many start-ups look to their families for cash. Eugene Sauve looked to his father, who was family, and a banker, too.
“My father lent me the $20 grand, since I was determined to open it for exactly that amount of money,” he said. “But I had to bring him in as a partner. It cost me 50 for 20 the six years he was my partner, which was pretty darn good for him, which explains why he was a banker.”
He stuck to his budget by buying end-of-the-roll carpeting on the cheap, cadging no cost paint that had been returned because it was the wrong color, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself. “A buddy of mine was an electrician. I worked with him. It was hard work, but It all fell together.”
His first stove was an old 4-burner Enterprise. The galvanized range hood came from a bakery going bankrupt. He was the dishwasher, sous chef, and chef. The kitchen had no air conditioning. “It used to be so hot in here it was unbelievable.”
The Landmark Café in Victoria opened in the summer of 1989. In the movies they say things like, “If you build it, they will come.” In real life not everything is scripted. “The first day was really scary,” said Eugene. “I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to walk in.”
But if you build something good somebody is going to pay good money for it.
“The best Caesar salad I have ever experienced. The flavors were amazing. And the seafood pasta was melt in your mouth delicious,” said a man finishing his seafood pasta.
“I had been searching for a great seafood chowder,” said a woman in a print skirt. “After four other places this was the very best I’ve had on the island so far, just delicious.”
“I usually go with the flavorful Acadian meat pie, but yesterday I tried the special, a fish burger,” said a frequent diner. “It was delicious.”
When you’re serving people delicious food they don’t complain.
Not much beats delicious. Sunshine and fresh air are delicious. Kissing is delicious, tastier than sex. You don’t have to think about rotisserie chicken to know that it’s delicious. Authentic fresh yummy ingredients like island beef, island fish, and island produce are what make the Landmark Café a landmark when Eugene Sauve prepares and brings them to the table.
A decade-and-a-half after opening, in the mid-aughts, the family, son Oliver and daughter Rachel having joined the labor force, expanded the Landmark Café. “We lifted the whole building, since we had a problem with storage and there was no basement, which we needed to grow as a business,“ said Eugene.
“We added 40 seats and that changed everything, since we were turning people away. The air conditioning in the kitchen got done, too. I’m the chef here, anyway, and I need to stay cool. That way we serve more food and everybody’s happy.”
For all the changes and renovations, the original chairs and tables built by Crapaud farmer George Nicholson thirty years ago are still what many diners sit on and eat at in the Landmark Café. In the course of time, however, things happen, chairs and tables sometimes taking the brunt of it.
Opening the restaurant one morning after a stormy night Eugene Sauve found a note addressed to him.
Please accept my sincere apology for the disorderly behavior I displayed last evening. Enclosed is a cheque that I hope is sufficient for the purchase of a new table. It’s been awhile since I’ve let myself loose like that and I’m only sorry it was at your expense.
The next day he wrote back.
Pam, the table is going to be fixed with a little glue. There’s no problem. You are always welcome here.
Who doesn’t want to stop and eat and drink and kick back somewhere where the chairs are time tested and sturdy and the table is always set for you?
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.