Those who were wondering what was going to happen with the retail space formerly occupied by Small Ritual Coffee Society space in White Rock don’t have to wonder any more.
A ‘soft’ opening this month is introducing passersby to a new coffee-shop experience for the city’s lower Johnston Road area– this one with a distinctly Hawaiian flavour.
Islands Cafe is the brain-child of Robb Harding, who spent eight years in the islands – particularly in the North Shore area of Oahu – learning to surf and building boards, before returning to Semiahmoo Peninsula roots and family.
The first thing he’d like patrons to know, he said, that the current business is in no way connected to the Small Ritual Coffee Society nor its essay contest that was intended to pass the business on to the winner, he said.
He noted that he, too, shared the confusion of many about the contest, first announced last September, which was not – as it turned out – sanctioned by the owner of the building at 1237 Johnston Rd.; Small Rituals’ property – fittings and equipment only – were presented to a winner in Fernie in March.
Islands Cafe, however, is a totally White Rock venture, albeit with a strong dash of island/surfer culture, thanks to coffee sourced directly from Hawaiian producers, and specialties such as acai bowls (which mix an acai berry sauce with other fresh fruit, coconut and granola) and poke bowls (featuring raw yellow-fin tuna).
Adding to the atmosphere are some of Harding’s own hand-made boards, plus photographs and artwork from surfer-artist Wellsy.
It’s the first local venture of the kind for Harding – although he was a partner in an islands-based cafe that has served as a prototype.
His wife, Jalene, has also been instrumental in setting up the project, he said.
“She’s done as much as I have to get it up and going,” he added.
He noted their original plan was to start a coffee shop in Hawaii – they’d already lined up suppliers among connections in the islands – only to decide to stay in White Rock when they learned the lease for the former Small Ritual premises was available.
“My mom’s a single mom and Jalene’s family is here – I suddenly had this thought of ‘how can we go that far away from them?'”
Harding, an Elgin Park Secondary grad, said he’s used to changing courses in life.
“When I was 20 years old I was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I was at UVic in my second year.”
After undergoing a course of chemotherapy, he was ultimately given a clean bill of health, he said.
“But it changed me as a person,” he said, adding that the brush with mortality sharpened his focus on what he wanted to do with his life.
“I was born on the Prairies, in Saskatoon,” he said. “I’d always wanted to surf but I’d never done it.”
He sold a lot of his belongings, raising some $800, “and went to Hawaii to learn to surf.”
It was a humbling experience, he said, but one that introduced him to surfer culture.
He created and sold his own boards, and found himself rubbing elbows with celebrities seeking the same lifestyle – people like Bono, Eddie Vedder and Owen Wilson.
“What’s cool about surfing is that I could be someone who didn’t know much about it, and I’d be next to the best surfers in the world.”
Through his connections with the surfing community, he discovered the islanders’ passion for health-minded eating choices.
“We served hundreds of acai and poke bowls to hundreds of people from all around the world,” he said.
There’s another tradition – from Maui – that Harding would like to make a regular feature of the cafe.
“The third Friday of every month there is a night to celebrate – we’re thinking of taking that concept and opening up the cafe for live entertainment.”