By Bob Barnett
On Feb. 1 the newest Caramba Restaurante will open — in Banff.
Under a licensing agreement with Caramba founder Mario Enero, Banff Caribou Properties will open the third Caramba, in their newly renovated Banff Ptarmigan Inn.
"We’re very excited and confident we can translate the Caramba experience to Banff," said Nicky de Champlain, director of sales and marketing for Banff Caribou Properties.
"It’s very different from anything else in Banff. People are looking for something like Caramba, something not pretentious, but comfortable."
"They’re good guys," Enero says of Neil Tanner and Wim Pauw, who own the Banff Caribou Lodge, Banff Ptarmigan Inn, two Keg franchises and several other properties and businesses in Banff.
"I didn’t want to do it at first, but they convinced me."
In fact, it took a couple of trips to Banff this fall to convince Enero the two partners were going to do justice to his restaurant concept and that it was worth licensing. The fact that the Alberta economy is so strong and that he didn’t have any direct financial risk also helped persuade Enero.
Tanner and Pauw bought the Ptarmigan Inn in December of 1995, ironically the same month Enero opened the first Caramba in Whistler. The two have spent the last two and a half years winning municipal approval for $4.5 million worth of renovations to the 20-year-old hotel in downtown Banff. The "new" Ptarmigan Inn will open on Feb. 1 and will house the newest Caramba.
But the Banffites’ decision to approach Enero about licensing Caramba was a round-about one. They considered and rejected Johnny Tomato’s, Outbacks and Milestones franchises for the Ptarmigan Inn and by last October were prepared to build their own restaurant, when they happened to be in Whistler for a Keg corporate meeting. On de Champlain’s recommendation Tanner and Pauw went to Caramba for a meal. They came away impressed.
"Neil came back and said ‘they even have pictures of downhillers’," de Champlain said of the Ken Wesman paintings in Caramba Whistler.
Tanner and Pauw have built a strong relationship with ski racing in Banff. They provide 14 vans for Banff ski clubs. The vans are mobile bill boards for the Ptarmigan Inn and Caribou Lodge, and five of them will carry the Caramba logo. As well, the new Ptarmigan Inn will house a collection of World Cup memorabilia.
"Knowing skiers like Rob Boyd come here to eat is a big thing for us," de Champlain said.
Being in a hotel, the Banff Caramba will naturally attract hotel customers, but de Champlain anticipates the restaurant will quickly become a favourite of locals.
"I think the locals are ready for Caramba. All the restaurants in Banff are either too pricey or the food is just OK. There’s a limited choice.
"I think the platters will be attractive to locals."
Long before Enero opened Caramba he had worked out the concept for the restaurant in his mind: the open kitchen, platters of food shared among friends, a Mediterranean influence throughout the decor and menu but combined with furnishings and foods familiar to North Americans.
The Whistler Caramba has been a hit since it opened, and led to Enero’s second Caramba, which opened in Port Moody last spring.
To make sure the Caramba experience is translated to Banff, four of the "Banff Boys" worked in the Whistler Caramba over the Christmas holidays.
Whistlerites will be hearing about the Banff Caramba in local radio advertising in the weeks ahead, while Banffites will learn about the Whistler Caramba in a cross-promotion with one of Mountain FM’s sister stations.