New approach paying off for White Rock legion

Entertainment schedule and in-house restaurant makes a difference for Branch 8

In an era when many Royal Canadian Legion branches are rethinking ways to attract new members – and ways in which they can continue to interact with the public to benefit the communities around them – RCL’s White Rock Branch 8 seems to have hit on a winning formula.

In the Legion’s Peace Arch Zone (which includes the Crescent, Cloverdale, Whalley, Ladner and Tsawwassen branches), Branch 8, in particular, was recently singled out for praise by zone commander Dale Johnston for escaping the moribund atmosphere that afflicts some other branches in the Pacific Command as long-term members age and numbers shrink.

“Branch 8 is not just the only one increasing its membership, but it’s also doing well financially,” said the branch’s entertainment chairperson George Wolf – who typifies the new blood that president John Fletcher told Peace Arch News he has sought to attract to the executive to keep it viable and connected, while still maintaining its relationship with senior members.

“In a way, we wish that some other legions would take the hint and do what we are doing in the way of entertainment and food,” Wolf added.

In addition to an average of two live entertainment events each week – not counting a Sunday country music jam, the only one south of the Fraser – the legion has a busy schedule of special events, theme nights and fundraisers for some of the many community charitable causes it contributes to each year.

Among bigger shows this month was a fundraiser for Semiahmoo House Society held this past Sunday (featuring well-known local Elvis tribute artist Ben Klein), and Jason Scott’s Diamond Forever, A Celebration of Neil Diamond on Thursday, June 15 (see page A24).

But there’s no way to discuss the current success of Branch 8 without mentioning Mackarino’s – an independently-run business based at the branch which over the past year has transformed the notion of what a legion kitchen operation can be.

Its chef-partners – sisters Nicole and Dionne Mackenzie (the latter a Red Seal certified chef) and longtime friend Angela Neufeld – have brought their culinary and purchasing expertise to bear on the daily full-menu operation, offering well-presented and well-sourced dishes that range from the adventurous end of the culinary spectrum to reliable comfort foods, at prices very reasonable for seniors on fixed incomes, as well as providing vegetarian options and multi-course dinners for special theme nights.

The feedback has been very positive from the beginning, Nicole said, and customers have remained loyal.

“When we first did a Valentine’s Day dinner, people were telling us ‘this is cruise food’,” she said.

“They not only have really great food, but they have an excellent business model,” Wolf said.

Fletcher said that while he was initially skeptical that three people could run a viable kitchen operation where single cooks had previously struggled, he has been won over by the partners’ energy and enterprise.

“It’s really different from any other legion kitchen,” said Dionne, who was formerly a chef for Ritchie Bros.

“We try to do at-home-style cooking, but put a little flair to it.”

Nicole said she and Dionne came up with the idea when they had contract jobs that both ended at the same time. They were originally going to try it at a legion in North Vancouver, when they saw an advertisment that Branch 8 was looking for someone to take over the kitchen operation.

Bringing in Neufeld, who they’ve known since college, was a natural, they said.

“Angela is an amazing shopper – she gets us the best prices,” Nicole said.

“We’re able to offer good-quality, high-end meals that are still within people’s budget.”

Fletcher and Wolf noted that it’s easier than ever to become a legion member – the public can join as affiliate members without any connection to the military, or associate members if they have relatives who served in the military or the RCMP.

While there is an emphasis on supporting the community, supporting veterans continues to be important, Fletcher added.

“People still think of veterans as being the Second World War or Korean War generations, but we still have conflicts going on around the world and Canada is at the forefront of helping other nations.

“While there has been some progress for veterans there are many suffering from PTSD and in need of half-way homes – which we support – and we’re dealing with others or who come back and feel like they have been deserted by their government.”

While the annual poppy campaign is directly aimed at supporting veterans, Fletcher said, through such fundraisers as meat draws, the branch manages to donate a sizable amount to community charitable initiatives.

“We’re a small branch, but we donate some $100,000 per year to such causes as the Cancer Society, the ALS Society, the Kidney Foundation and the Semiahmoo House Society,” he said.

Even with the busy schedule of events, the legion still manages to cater to regular patrons whose primary interest is in the games room at the back.

“We can have a ticketed event for 120 people and still have games in the back – the bar extends on both sides of the partition,” Fletcher said.

“This is not just a beer-and-band place,” he added. “(The legion) does bring in a lot of people.”

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