When Gabriel Martin moved to Nanaimo, BC six years ago, he quickly realized he’d found a fertile place to sprout a gourmet café devoted to fresh, local cuisine.
By Lawrence Herzog
Vancouver Island is locavore laden, and small-scale producers are answering the demand with an ever-increasing bounty of exceptional quality and freshness. “The Island’s got the Saanich Peninsula, the Comox Valley, and the Cowichan, and now the area around Nanaimo has really picked up, too,” Martin says.
At Gabriel’s Gourmet Cafe, customers come to “follow your food from farm to fork,” and enjoy finely crafted selections made with ingredients grown and raised locally as much as possible. “Small farms raise animals that enjoy a much higher quality of life than factory farms” is how they put it. “The more natural the environment for the animals, the healthier they are, and the more nutritious the meat and eggs they produce.”
The business has cultivated relationships with a range of local producers including Quennell Lake Livestock Conservancy, The Farm at Cedar Woods, Nesvogs Meats, Fredrich’s Honey, Creekmore’s Coffee and Island Farmhouse Poultry. “It all started off with Chris Brown from Farmship Growers Co-operative who came by with a big box of food,” Martin explains. “From there, it has just been networking, farmer’s markets, and Facebook to make connections.
Eating with the seasons and buying locally just makes sense, he says. “When we decided to make the shift, my biggest worry was whether we could do it affordably. It does cost a little bit more for some things, but that money comes back because you are supporting farmers, and they put it back into the local economy. It also builds word of mouth, and our repeat business is more than 90 per cent in the winter months.”
Martin started the venture with a little takeout place on downtown Nanaimo’s Commercial Street. Last year, his life and business partner Gemma joined the team, and they moved to bigger digs down the street. It’s a 35-seat eatery with a focus on sustainable eating that extends to the décor. Gemma oversaw the interior design, and chose largely repurposed materials like coffee sack seat backs and Mason jar lamps. There is also a “living wall” with herbs, lettuce, kale, spinach and other greens.
Loyal customers return for the cafe’s signature breakfast and lunch selections like a Thai green coconut curry rice bowl, eggs scrambled with pulled pork and wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla, and a black bean burger made with brown rice and corn topped with chipotle mayonnaise. Others come back to try something different every day. “It’s how we’re building the business,” Martin says. “Popular mainstays and daily specials to keep it exciting.”
Gabriel’s Gourmet Cafe’s top tips:
- Cultivate relationships with growers through social media and farmers’ markets.
- Tell customers your ingredients are local with no chemicals or GMOs.
- Take advantage of seasonal and fresh with daily specials.
- Watch your food costs and price points carefully and adjust as needed.