At least 13 restaurants have permanently closed on Marine Drive since 2007, 11 within the last four years.
In interviews this week with Peace Arch News, current and former restaurant owners have pointed a finger at White Rock’s rapidly changing business landscape as the cause of the closures. Most agree that starting a restaurant on Marine Drive is nothing like it was 10 or 20 years ago.
“Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it,” said Nicholas Popoff, owner of Pearl Bistro and Oyster Bar on Marine Drive since 2004.
Recent developments, such as Southpoint Exchange Mall, The Shops at Morgan Crossing and Grandview Heights, have introduced major restaurant franchises, such as The Keg, Cactus Club, Sammy J’s and White Spot.
“In 2004, the beach was the only place to go and eat,” Popoff said.
Mike Yeh, owner of Coney Island Seafood – which he notes has been there for at least 60 years – bought into the business 20 years ago.
“If anybody wants to come down and open up a business I say good luck to them. It’s not easy unless you find a business to take over that already has clientele built up,” Yeh said.
Current restaurant owners say there’s a list of reasons why restaurants struggle to make it on Marine Drive’s 1½-kilometre-long strip:
Paying the bills
Property values in White Rock have increased dramatically over the past 20 years.
White Rock Coun. Bill Lawrence admits he’s not privy to everybody’s reason for closing shop, but says what’s happening is “not a glorious situation.”
“In some instances, it’s landlords increasing rent levels and lease levels beyond reasonable amounts,” the co-owner of the just-closed Sandpiper Pub said.
Shafique Saleemi – owner of Fishboat, Little Ass Burrito Bar and Crazy Cow Ice Cream – says the rent is high compared to other places in White Rock, but that’s to be expected with beachfront properties: “If you were to compare waterfront areas within Metro Vancouver, it’s within range.”
Saleemi said he plans to open another Crazy Cow on Marine.
Popoff, however, said his rent has almost tripled since he opened.
“Property taxes need to come down substantially. Our property tax just went up $500 a month. With no warning and no sharing cost from our landlord,” he said.
Patio fees are another expense restaurateurs have to deal with. A restaurant may have a patio – cost-free – if it’s within property boundaries. But if the patio goes over the property line, the owner must pay the city per-square-foot. Business owners need to pay $15 per-square-foot in West Beach and $11 per-square-foot in East Beach and elsewhere in the city.
As well, White Rock city council announced a decision to abandon garbage collection for businesses and multifamily residences. Since July 2015, restaurant owners and stratas have had to arrange their own waste collection.
“Garbage, that’s a new one,” Popoff noted. “Garbage used to be included in our property taxes. Now, our property taxes went up $500 a month, and then they hit us having to pay for our own garbage, too. We’re at $500 a month for garbage now, sometimes $750.”
After the city’s so-called “privatization” announcement, John Carroll, owner of Charlie Don’t Surf, was vocal about the change. In April 2015, he attended a public meeting and estimated his annual garbage collection bill would be $26,000 with White Rock’s new private system.
He also noted his customers have brought in close to $9 million in parking revenue for the city.
Restaurant owners have voiced two concerns when it comes to parking: There’s not enough of it in the summer; and that it should be free, especially in the off-season.
“Making people pay for parking in the fall and wintertime is absurd,” Popoff said. “It always has been, everybody always has complained about it.”
Summer customers – who pay $3 an hour on city lots – often complain about the number of parking stalls, Yeh added.
“People have to circle the block for half an hour to find a parking spot, even if you’re lucky. Most people – after a couple rounds of the block – they give up,” Yeh said.
This summer, council members decided to widen the sidewalk on the north side of Marine Drive between Ash and Balsam streets. The $55,000 project will result in the removal of 10 parking stalls.
“I heard this year they’re going to take out (10) parking stalls just to extend the sidewalk. There goes another (10),” Yeh said.
Last month, the city hosted a second open house on the revitalization of Memorial Park. The plan is still in the works, but it mentions a loss of parking spaces in favour of trees and man-made forms to create shade in the park.
Saleemi says he “doesn’t buy the argument” that paid parking is keeping diners away from Marine Drive. He said people expect to pay for parking in an oceanfront town and people are accustomed to it, especially if they have previously dined in Vancouver.
“If you cannot afford to pay for parking then you cannot afford to eat at a restaurant,” Saleemi said.
“It’s definitely needed, there’s no doubt about it,” Lawrence said. “But for some businesses, it’s too late.”
Marine Drive restaurant owners agree that owning a business on the strip has its highs and lows.
“You get the feast in the late spring, summer and early fall, and then famine for the remaining part of the year,” Lawrence said.
The restaurateurs say new restaurant owners aren’t fully prepared for the slow season.
“I think people come in the summer and have that wow factor. Come September, they ask the other shop owners, ‘what happened, we thought this location was so good, where are the customers?’” Saleemi said.
During the off-season, Saleemi closes Little Ass Burrito for December and January, he closes Crazy Cow Ice Cream from November to March and keeps Fishboat open all year but on a limited schedule.
Yeh said most of the restaurants used to operate year-round. A few years ago, he decided to close his fish and chips shop for December “because there’s just not enough business. I would much rather take a loss paying the rent then keeping it open. With no business, I lose rent, hydro, I lose more money.”
Lawrence said most of the successful restaurants have been there long enough to build up a base of local customers.
“If they are brand spanking new and don’t have that regular customer base (to get them through winter), it’s going to be very rough.”
In April 2012, the White Rock Business Improvement Association, the then-Tourism White Rock and the City of White Rock unveiled a 10-foot-by-40-foot billboard encouraging American visitors to take the first exit off Highway 99 and spend time in the seaside city. The cost of the billboard – $42,560 per year – was shared between the city and the BIA.
A year later, the BIA voted to cut its $20,000 funding for the billboard.
Saleemi said his restaurant started losing business when that billboard was removed. He said he noticed fewer U.S. licence plates and fewer U.S. dollars at the cash register.
“Now they no longer know that White Rock has a waterfront. The people that we’re getting are lost, they took an 8 Avenue turn and are saying ‘wow, we never knew there was waterfront restaurants.’”
Saleemi said that when you drive down Marine Drive you’ll notice “for lease, for lease, for lease… it looks like a ghost town now.”
Yuriy Makogonsky, owner of Moby Dick, noted problems stretch further than Marine Drive.
“The whole restaurant industry is in a difficult situation,” he said.
His number one issue is staffing. Makogonsky said it’s tough work – especially in the summer – the pressure is “extreme” and businesses are unable to pay more than $14 to $15 an hour.
“There is so much pressure during the summertime and now it’s mostly dead. You have to keep your staff because if you laid your staff off, who will be working for you in the summer?” he said.
Popoff, who also owns Onyx, up the hill in Five Corners, said he’s lucky to run two restaurants, as he’s able to mitigate seasonal layoffs through staff sharing.
Prices are another tool restaurants use to compete.
“We do an eggs Benedict promotion every Saturday and Sunday between 10 and 11:30 a.m. for $5,” Popoff said. “That’s just to put buns in the seats. Five bucks; when have you heard of going to a sit-down full-service restaurant and have breakfast for five freaking dollars?”
Makognosky said that in the past three years, prices for “everything” have gone up 15-20 per cent, and that the Marine Drive restaurant market is so diverse he cannot increase menu prices to reflect his costs.
“It’s not that I want to, but it’s because I have to, because of the competition,” he said.
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It’s unclear what will happen with the former Sandpiper Pub building. But with new residential developments to its west and a three-store hotel to its east, Lawrence – former president of the BIA – is speculating it will eventually be replaced with condos.
Makogonsky, whose restaurant is two blocks east of the Sandpiper Pub, says transactions like this ultimately drive up the cost of rent.
“As you know, the Sandpiper was sold and it’s going to be turned into residential property. That’s driving the prices up. Landlords look around and say we either sell it to a developer or charge more on the restaurants, that’s what they do.”