When it comes to business, Pepe Barajas is kind of a lone wolf. The Whistler entrepreneur behind The Mexican Corner, La Cantina and Clean Perfect has, in his 20 years running businesses across North America, never had a partner.
“I’m more of a solo guy,” he said.
That changed when Barajas met entrepreneur and developer Kaori Zage, who, with her husband Ray, purchased Franz’s Trail in 2018 with a view towards reimagining Creekside into a food and retail hub.
The brains behind retail store Get the Goods and ice cream and sweet shop Confetti, Zage is determined to transform Whistler’s original ski village, and sold Barajas on her vision.
“I just appreciate and respect how she wants to reenergize and realize Creekside. It’s been abandoned for a while and it’s just got so much potential,” Barajas said. “When she shared with me her long-term vision, it was energizing for me. I was inspired. I want to be part of something that can change the landscape of Whistler and Creekside.”
The first venture the pair is partnering on is a new retro-themed concept for the former Starbucks space on Lake Placid Road that was operated by Whistler Blackcomb. Called Rockit Coffee Company, the space will remain a café—except with a central focus on music, especially classic tunes from the ’70s and ’80s, replete with a vinyl record player and a muscular sound system that will provide the soundtrack both for the shop and the pedestrian stroll.
“I’ve always loved vinyl records. I’ve always loved old-school music and so the décor, the vibe, everything is going to have that ’70s, ’80s kind of retro feel to it. And we’re working with special DJs to come up with the right playlist for the Rockit Coffee Company,” Zage said. “So it’s not just coffee and food; it’s also celebrating music and the beginnings of modern Whistler.”
The décor will skew to the throwback theme, with colourful furniture and pop-culture ephemera dotting the walls that will make the space eminently Instagrammable.
“If you imagine you’re in, say, Southern California as a teenager and you walk in and it could be like your parents’ living room or something. You might play your own music but your parents will also have their music. So I’m not saying we’re limiting all of our music to the ’70s and ’80s, but the décor will be a throwback to that,” Zage explains. “I just thought if you’re going to do something like this, you might as well make it an experience.”
Rockit will have both breakfast and lunch offerings, with an emphasis on smoothies, sandwiches, wraps and bagels in the morning, and a selection of salads and gourmet sandwiches with different bread options such as baguettes and sourdough at lunch. Once Barajas has baking capabilities in his commissary kitchen in Function, likely next year, the plan is to begin offering artisanal donuts as well.
“We want to have things that aren’t out there. We don’t see many places doing baguettes,” Barajas said. “We don’t want to compete or bring stuff that is already out there. “
The shop will also be armed with a top-of-the-line, Italian-made Nuova Simonelli espresso machine and Zage, a coffee aficionado herself, said there will be “a real focus on coffee in terms of the beans, getting the right baristas, and truly making coffee the way it should be made.”
There will also be ample staff housing available to any of the 15 to 20 employees Barajas envisions will be needed to run the café.
“Right now we have three houses and we will be adding at least three more. That’s a big part of our strategy,” he added.
As he’s long done locally, Barajas said he and Zage are taking a “people-oriented” approach to staffing, tailored to the needs of each employee. “We don’t use a cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “There are people who come for six months and they want a flexible schedule that will allow them to enhance their Whistler experience and then there are other staff looking for career opportunities, so it’s really understanding each of them and keeping a pulse on how they’re feeling to keep them motivated and engaged.”
Between Barajas’ intimate knowledge of the local market and running successful F&B concepts, and Zage’s refined taste and vision cultivated through years of travel and entrepreneurship, the two are in many ways the perfect complement to each other.
And their partnership won’t end with Rockit. They are teaming up on a Thai concept, also for Creekside, called 88 Mekong that has tapped one of Vancouver’s biggest chefs along with an award-winning designer.
“It will be a destination restaurant, for sure, just like the Rimrock is or the Red Door Bistro,” Barajas notes.
Zage, who first fell in love with Creekside after she and her husband bought a place nearby, is fiercely committed to the rejuvenation of the long-sleepy neighbourhood—which is getting renewed attention from Vail Resorts this year with the installation of new, high-capacity lifts. Zage kept the units she owns there empty through the pandemic even as offers came in from businesses that didn’t necessarily align with her vision.
“I’ve had plenty of people, whether they were offices or other real estate agents or what have you, wanting to rent space on the stroll. But I didn’t feel that was going to be the right vibe,” she said. “Through COVID, I got the opportunity to meet Pepe, speak with him and over that time develop a rapport. He has a real understanding of how F&B should work and now I’m really confident. That’s why we’ve upped the game for Creekside.”
The team is hopeful to open Rockit in late summer, with 88 Mekong slated to launch by the winter.