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The Pony Espresso’s last Hoo Haw set for Oct. 1

Final party to help raise funds for Vancouver Children’s Hospital

Mike Richman isn’t a coffee drinker. This is odd, considering that he’s also the owner of Pemberton’s Pony Espresso. But to Richman irony and contradiction are just a part of life.

Ten-and-a-half-years ago, he was a newcomer determined to make a go out of it in a weird little wooden building on Portage that had been everything from an arcade to a motorcycle shop. Long-time locals in what was then a very small town (less than 900) eyed Richman with suspicion.

"Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly embraced," Richman laughs.

Today "The Pony" is a venerable local institution and Richman, who met his wife-to-be the same day he signed the papers on Pony property, is a well-rooted family man with a four-year-old daughter and a one-year old son. When he announced earlier this spring that The Pony was closing, it was a hot topic around town. The biggest cause for speculation was part of the announcement that promised a re-opening in a new location.

On Oct. 1, Pemberton’s unofficial community centre will indeed close its doors. But it won’t be a somber, quiet funereal affair to mark the passing, it will be more like a rollicking wake; the last of the famous annual Hoo Haws is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.

"I’m hoping that I’ll be making an announcement about the new location at the Hoo Haw around 6 p.m.," said Richman.

He is investigating three options: two would see relocating the business in existing structures around town and a third option would have the restaurateur building from the ground up.

"Best case scenario, we’ll be open just before Christmas," he said. "Of course, if we have to build ourselves we might be looking at a temporary location."

Richman’s vision for the new Pony Expresso is to transplant what he calls the "funky weirdness" of the original while making some necessary additions. The weirdness will literally be imported piece by piece when Richman starts to see what he can physically remove from the premises. The additions will be changes made to serve customers better.

"We’ve always had people who have come in three or four times a day for coffee. We have regulars who catch up every morning on the bullshit balcony out front. We want to get those people to think of us for dinner or early evening," said Richman.

And the new location will also be more comfortable for the men and women who have helped Richman build his business. The oft-expanded Pony grew to accommodate patrons rather than staff. Richman’s the first to admit that it takes good communication skills and physical agility to be part of the team behind the counter.

Despite a kitchen he describes as being "about 2 feet by 2 feet," Richman notes that recently more than 200 dinners flew out of that kitchen during a beer and pizza night. He points out that those numbers wouldn’t be doable if it wasn’t for the excellent crew he currently has on board.

Richman emphasizes that it took more than great staff to make The Pony, it took great customers.

"I attribute a lot of the character of the place to the regulars," said Richman. "You know the deck upstairs? I added that in year three. I wanted to do it, but couldn’t afford it. I came into work one morning and there was a flat of wood there with an anonymous note telling me to start building the deck."

Customers have also donated labour during The Pony’s annual one-day renovation closure and have rushed to help with sandbagging when rising waters threatened the low-lying building.

"Frankly, it’s always been a very tight business to run and there were many times I might have walked away from it in the past if it wasn’t for the awesome customers we’ve had."

Richman anticipates seeing the majority of those customers at the Hoo Haw and urges people to come early.

"If everyone shows up at 9 p.m., we’re going to have turn people away," he said.

Face painting, pony rides and clowns will be on hand, starting at 1 p.m. to entertain the kids. Music, food and good times are guaranteed to keep the grown-ups entertained until 1 a.m.

This year, The Pony is asking for a $5 entry fee for everyone attending the Hoo Haw. All of the funds will be donated to Vancouver Children’s Hospital. The charity was chosen for a personal reason. Last year, Richman’s son was born with a heart problem. The baby underwent emergency heart surgery at the facility when he was only 12 days old.

"The fact that he even lived long enough to make it to the surgery was amazing enough; the care after was incredible. He had one nurse just on him 24 hours a day," said Richman, the emotion evident in his voice.

"We figured, we’re having a 1,000 people coming through that day, this is an opportunity to give back something."