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Les Ecker – Feeding the masses

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It's been a tough year for old-school relics around here. The Skiboot, the Orange Chair, the forest on Lot 1/9 - even Citta's - they've all fallen to "progress" of late. As for eating out, it's getting tougher and tougher for a working stiff to find a reasonable place to dine anymore. Unless your pockets are seriously deep, chances are you spend most nights at home these days cooking pasta or rice. Fortunately there's still the Southside Diner.

Just across the highway from Creekside, in one of the few commercial buildings left from "the ol' days," the classic roadhouse that used to be run by the always-colourful Herschel Miedzygorski is alive and well and still serving hearty meals that stick to your ribs. The clientele is just as quirky as it's always been. Construction workers, ski bums, liftees, freelance writers and filmmakers - a few uncertain tourists who've blundered in off the highway: the melange of guests here is refreshingly offbeat.

This is the Whistler that Tourism Whistler never dares to speak about. The working-class Whistler where people make an honest buck for an honest day's work. The dress code is casual at the Diner. Carhart jackets easily outnumber Burton or Descente. Soiled ball caps are de rigueur. And every patron, it seems, knows Les.

A quiet-spoken, unassuming kind of a guy, Les Ecker is the man behind the Diner's resurrection. Along with current partner Dave Keen - another well-recognized name in the Whistler hospitality business - the 40-year-old Ecker has been feeding hungry locals at the Southside since he bought the business from the highly-optimistic owners of the upscale Screaming Oyster in the spring of 2004. "The place had been totally renovated from its Deli days," he explains. "It was ready to go." He smiles. Shakes his head in mock despair. "Little did I know how big a learning curve this little adventure was going to be for us. It was basically an owner-in-training program..."

His business partner then was Johnny 'Wishbone' Henry and Les admits that their enthusiasm for the project totally overwhelmed their caution. "We were so gung-ho to get in there," says Les. "We never did our due diligence." He pauses for a beat, as if to remind himself just how foolhardy the duo had been. Their biggest mistake? "We signed a lease that the business couldn't sustain," he says.

Still, the two partners were on the right track. Unlike the backers of the Screaming Oyster who tried to finesse their restaurant into a higher-priced menu bracket, Ecker and Henry decided to return to the source. "We wanted to change the concept a little from the original Deli - but we wanted to stay true to the original clientele. We saw an opportunity with that market. For us, it was all about creating a 'local's atmosphere.'"

The response from customers was overwhelmingly positive - even though, says Les, "it felt at first like we were doing everything we could to piss people off at every table..."

Ecker acknowledges things are a lot smoother now. But the process was far from easy. "The whole reason for launching the business was to establish myself here so I could get to ski more." He sighs deeply. "It hasn't quite worked out that way. The service industry is very demanding." He laughs. "You know, pulling money out of this place is tough."

Still, he admits his quality of life has improved tremendously in recent months. "I've gone from being over-stressed and working too hard to finally getting back to why I moved here." That's when he tells me he's skied more this winter than in the three previous years combined! "Overall, the fun meter is going way up," he says.

As for the current economic downturn, Ecker maintains it hasn't affected the Diner much yet. "I've heard talk around town about various restaurants having a hard time of it this year. But I think because we're going for a different market, we're holding steady."

Like most other Whistlerites his age, Les is still a little edgy about the future. "I still wonder: in five years, will I still be operating a restaurant? I don't want to get caught up in the work-to-live thing. I'd like to balance that out a bit."

Whistler is a long way from southwestern Ontario's tobacco country. And owning a mountainside restaurant is nothing like being an RCMP officer. But for Ecker, a non-skier who grew up in the small community of Tilsonberg and always dreamed of being a cop, the journey to Whistler completely turned his world topsy-turvy. "Now I look back and just shake my head," he admits.

Ecker's first trip to Whistler was for his sister's wedding in the fall of 1991. "I was 21 years old, had no ties to anything and had an incredible time here," he recalls. It was also on this trip that he had his first mountain biking experience. "I fell for it, big-time," he says. When his sister and new brother-in-law suggested he come back for the winter Les was more than receptive. "I went back to Ontario, packed up my gear and moved west."

Soon, Les was working at Chez Joel. "The restaurant was located in the village in those days," he says. "Garfinkel's was right below us. So as soon as we'd finish our shifts, we'd move downstairs to continue the party." He laughs. "It was a great winter."

Though he returned home to Tilsonberg in the spring, and would continue to do the bi-coastal thing until 1995, Ecker's destiny had already been determined. "From that first winter, I knew that I wanted to live here. I just had to figure out how to do it successfully."

His Whistler initiation to mountain biking had also unlocked a passion for two-wheeled play that he didn't know he had. "For me, in those early years, it was a toss-up between skiing and mountain biking," he says. "I really loved both." He lets a chuckle spill out. "Being a neophyte skier, the biking came a little easier for me, so I got to like it a lot."

And chasing his brother-in-law and his buddies around the local trails forced the newcomer to hone his skills fast. "My goal was always to keep them in sight," he tells me. Easier said than done, he admits. "I learned from the school of hard knocks."

Still, Les was slowly picking up on the magic of the place. "I got to experience first hand what kind of lifestyle these guys led here." A pause. He tries to keep a straight face. Fails dismally. "Suddenly I realized that RCMP life wasn't for me anymore..."

But the learning curve was steep. "(Legendary trail builder) Dave Swanstrom was part of the crew," he recounts. "He'd drag me along when he was working on trails and stuff." Another smile plays on the edge of his lips. A hard-edged guy at the best of times, Swanstrom is a backwoods genius, but one who doesn't suffer fools much. "I thought he was so gruff with me at first. Now I realize just how patient he was."

Biking and skiing were fun. And Les loved his new lifetsyle. But when he decided to make the full-time commitment to Whistler in 1995, all the old bugaboos came back to haunt him. "It's never really changed, you know. Whether you arrived here in 1970 or just got here yesterday, the struggle to find a place and a job is still overwhelming."

At first he took a job at his brother-in-law's T-shirt shop. But he soon realized that working retail in the Village really wasn't for him. When he heard that the Savage Beagle was looking for new staff, he decided to take a chance and apply for a bartending position there. To his great surprise he got it. "It was the perfect job," he says. "It was great. Lots of fun, a cool party atmosphere - it was just what I was looking for." His eyes get that dreamy, faraway look. "I remember nights when it would puke outside and the energy would go sky-high. Those were the nights when I couldn't wait to close the bar so I could go home and rest before hitting the slopes..."

When the bar was sold in 2000, Ecker took a little time off before signing on with Garfinkel's. It seems like it was a good match. "I even went to Vail for a while to work on the launch of their new bar down there," he says. And smiles. "It was a nice place. But it wasn't for me." In 2002, he moved to Citta's, ostensibly for just a year. "That was a wonderful place to work," he says. "And my one year there quickly turned into two."

But he'd done his time as an employee. He was ready for a new challenge. "One day I got a call from John Henry," says Les. "He told me: 'Hey, the old Southside Deli - the Screaming Oyster now - is closing down. Let's grab it...'" And that, he says, is how the whole adventure began.

Although things didn't work out all that smoothly with Henry, Ecker says the new partnership with fellow Citta's alumni Dave Keen has already delivered some big wins. "There's really good trust between us," he explains. "We're good at reminding ourselves what we're about."

And the future? "When I'm 60, I'm hoping to be one of those guys hanging out at Dusty's after a few afternoon runs on the slopes," he says. "You see, when I go back east to visit my old buddies from high school, I realize they've aged differently than me. I feel so much younger, so much more active." He looks at me to make sure I understand what he's saying. "That, to me, is the real magic of Whistler..."


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