For this year’s 11th annual BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival, we had a chance to sit down with Locals Restaurant co-owner and chef, Ronald St. Pierre. Chef has watched the amazing evolution of Comox Valley for almost thirty years, having been a proud supporter and participant since day one. We sat down with him to talk about the Shellfish Festival, the natural abundance of Comox, and how he created a business that lets him stay true to his values.
Tangoo: Hello chef, and thanks for having us. Tell us about yourself!
Chef St. Pierre: "I’ve been in the Comox Valley for almost 27 years, coming originally from Quebec. I moved to Vancouver and worked in various hotels for eight years, which was wonderful. My wife and I decided to have kids, however, so we decided to relocate to a smaller community to raise them. We picked Comox. It’s a beautiful area and right by the ocean!
When I first entered Comox Valley’s food scene, I was fortunate enough to start working at the Old House restaurant. Old House gave me the opportunity to experience the communities here in farming, fishing, and foraging. There are so many knowledgeable folks surrounding us!
The things that came through the back door of the kitchen were so fresh – it was something I’d never seen before. Spot prawns, for instance – the fishermen would bring them in and they would put them in the kitchen sinks. They were twitching and swimming! The scallops coming in the back door were still clapping. So it was very interesting. Over the year the one thing I quickly realized was that lots of the produce and small farmers had a really hard time with staying sustainable. Many of them have come and gone. We’ve been working on the concept behind Locals Restaurant for a long time. We want to do more than serve local food – we want to close the gap between the consumer and the producer."
"For me, my producers have to be sustainable, or else meeting my long term goals becomes difficult. Today, we are on our 10th year in business. We have been able to buy local products, but we make sure to promote the producers to the consumers.
That means that when you eat here with me, you can also go and buy you own food from the producer to eat at home. We are very fortunate here in the Comox Valley where we have a beautiful farmers market. Bigger communities often don’t have this luxury!"
Tangoo: There must be so much buzz at the markets. Tell us about them!
CSP: "When we’re in season, we have two markets, and in off-season it’s once a week. Our locals always have access to fresh food.
We also have specialized retailers here to offer a wider range of food than the markets. These spaces help people be conscious about what they eat, the nutrients, the freshness, and the value of the food that they put in their mouth.
We really value educating and making an educational aspect of it all – in our first location, this was exemplified. We first started in the downtown location in Courtenay. We had great wall space and made an illustration to show all our producers as well as their story. So that was what was inside the restaurant at first!
When we moved to our current location four years ago, we didn’t have the same type of wall to work with, so we were not able to recreate it. However, this space has big windows and a beautiful garden, so it still allows people to enjoy nature. Our website still has information on the producers, and we do our best to educate people in person and any other way we can."
T: You have seen a lot of things evolve over the years. Especially relevant now is talking about the evolution of tourism and of course the festival itself. I am sure it’s done a lot to boost visitors and consumer habits are changing across Canada.
Have you seen an increase of traffic and interest into local food? Do you see those trends provincially, nationally, globally?
CSP: "Over the course of 25 years, tourism in Comox Valley has become massive, and it’s happened fast.
There are many reasons why. One reason is that producers have become more self-sufficient and marketing through their own means. They do so by exporting their product and so on, instead of relying just on restaurants like us. And being recognized for the value of the product they are exporting. The aquaculture and industry in this area is recognized worldwide!
50% of the seafood that we consumed over the last year is farmed product. We need to ensure there are sustainable sources of farming from the sea. Aquaculture also offers a solution to the demand – growing fish within man-made conditions, replicating those of nature, lets us conserve wild stock for generations to come. The marine ecosystem is a fragile network – it needs to be preserved!
We are fortunate to have access to this seafood. But it is not an unlimited supply, right? So we have to protect what is there and be conscious about how much it is that we are fishing as well to respond to the demand. Aquaculture is the industry of the future."
T: On the marketing, technology, and social media side, how are people hearing about you?
CSP: "Here in the Comox Valley, the Shellfish festival is a big reason how we are marketed. It started about eleven years ago, and in those days the BC Shellfish Association started it. The first year they basically hosted a gala evening for the public. And their initial goal was to expose to the public, the products here. Over the years now, the festival has grown to an extended program with activities and an educational side as well. It is very, very incredible, and it brings people from all over the world to come to the festival.
So, of course for the tourism industry, it has been very beneficial and also for the Comox Valley. Also, about 10 years ago when West Jet decided to fly to our area, it made a great impact on our community as well as the tourist industry.
Here in the Comox Valley, the Shellfish Festival is a major player in boosting tourism to restaurants like ours. It was founded eleven years ago by the BC Shellfish Association. In the first year, they hosted a gala evening for the public. And their initial goal was to expose the public to the products we produce here. Over the years, the festival has grown to an extended program with activities and an educational side as well. It is very, very incredible – it brings people from all around the world to come and experience the community. So, of course for the tourism industry, it has been very beneficial and also for the Comox Valley. In addition, West Jet decided to begin flying out to our area – that made a great impact on our community as well as the tourist industry."
T: Tell me a bit more about sustainability. How have you balanced a sustainable menu while maintaining your business’s bottom line?
CSP: "I think the key to having a sustainable business is being true to yourself.
When you put together a business plan, of course, there is a bit of knowledge you need to make sure you do things properly. However, you can still balance out business realities with your values.
Here’s how we made that work for us.
We opened in June of 2008. Two months in, the market crashed. At that time, I was already seen as the most expensive menu in the Comox Valley for the food I was offering! And because sourcing all the food locally comes with a cost, it was tough. However, we survived through it, and stayed true to our values of sourcing locally.
It has always been my first priority to be true to my consumer – that’s what they most appreciate. For the guest, it’s important that we maintain consistency and good quality, always. If you focus on that, then you continue to be consistent with what your mission or what you goal is… and in the end, it’s going to work out fine.
So I think that is what is important to being sustainable, but also you have to adapt to the demand of the guest.
You cannot ignore what the demand is, so you have to be very flexible. In my case, because we are promoting local ingredients and sourcing what is available at the time, we have an ever-changing menu. If we have it, we serve it. If it’s not there you have to be flexible to change the menu, change an item, but you also have to change in the sense of dietary restriction needs, or what people like or dislike.
One of the things that I have noticed over the last 15 years is how much more guest education has evolved. They are a lot more educated about food, about what they want to try, what they want to see, so I think that has been a very interesting change as well."
T: Has television and social media made customers more adventurous?
CSP: "I think the increased accessibility of information online has been very beneficial. A big big part of it has been the food channel. People are more adventurous, a little more curious and when they are exposed to social media and foods online, they are exposed to more ingredients and knowledge. Therefore, when they come to us, we are able to serve them something a little more exotic. The people are a little more open and willing to try. It makes it more fun for us!"
T: Let’s talk about word of mouth. Where do you see this in your business?
CSP: "I believe word of mouth is number one.
I realize that word of mouth has changed a little bit. People don’t always see each other, so it has evolved in a sense via Trip Advisor, Facebook, and all the social media channels out there. But I think that the bottom line has not changed in the sense that if you have guest that comes and has a great experience, they will share it with people and then it all works itself out. As far as communicating what we have out to offer, we keep our menu fresh on our website. We do a little bit of social media as well, with Twitter and Facebook. We try to post pictures once in a while, but we do very little print advertisement anymore.
I also make sure to be very involved in the community. From day one, we have put a lot of our advertising dollars into that. There are more ways to do that than print materials! We give back by partaking in fundraisers, socials and community events. We put ourselves out there to the community, and in exchange, the community is our advertisement. When their friends and families come into town with them, they come back and dine with us.
It all comes back to the BC Shellfish Festival. For the last ten days, I donated my time and products to help make the festival successful. I want to help and not take any credit for it… I just want to participate.
I think if more people were to see it this way, the Comox Valley would benefit and become closer as a unified community
I believe that number one – is word of mouth.
I realize that word of mouth has changed a little bit. People don’t always see each other, so it has evolved in a sense via Trip Advisor, Facebook, and all the social media things – there is a lot of communication here.
But I think that the bottom line has not changed in the sense that if you have guest that comes and have a great experience, they will share it with people and then it all works itself out. As far as communicating what we have out to offer, we keep our menu fresh on our website pages, we do a little bit of social media as well, with Twitter and Facebook. We try to post pictures once in a while, but very little print advertisement anymore.
For me it is also about being very involved in the community, for me it is very important. From day one we have put a lot of our advertising dollars, not necessarily print material, but into being involved with the community.
By partaking in fundraisers, partaking in social events, or community events, any helping out is my way of giving back. We put ourselves out there to the community, and in exchange, the community is our advertisement. When their friends and families, come into town with them, they come back and dine with us.
It all comes back to the BC Shellfish Festival where for the last 10 ten days, I have taken part in the different events, and have donated my time and products to help make the festival successful. I want to help and not take any credit for it…I just want to participate.
I think if more people were to see it this way, I think it would be very beneficial to Comox Valley as a unified community."