July 18, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Village Pioneers 

Longtime businesses weather the Whistler storms and are still standing

click to flip through (7) PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES. - An original Eldon Beck 3D model of  Whistler Village, circa 1979.  (Highlighted  buildings are a random graphic representation and not indicative of actual businesses discussed in this feature)
  • Photo courtesy of Whistler Museum and Archives.
  • An original Eldon Beck 3D model of Whistler Village, circa 1979. (Highlighted buildings are a random graphic representation and not indicative of actual businesses discussed in this feature)

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Handing over the reins

While Armchair Books, Whistler Hardware and Carlberg Gifts have managed to keep it in the family, there is another shift taking place as new owners take over from the originals.

Take Ingrid's Village Café, the oldest café in Whistler, next to Whistler Hardware.

Ken Davey said it was his mom Hilda who first got that business off the ground.

"The idea of the deli was to get the hardware store on its feet, which it did," recalls Davey. "My mom didn't really enjoy making sandwiches for everybody but it was something she had to do in the beginning; she grinned and bared it. And when the time was right she sold the deli."

Ingrid Morgan took over in 1986, tempting customers with her German cuisine

For years the café remained in Ingrid's family.

Ten years ago, business partners Fiona Minton and Nancy MacConnachie bought into the business.

They have changed little in the decade they've been running it, following the credo: "why mess with a good thing?"

"John (Ingrid's son) was quite adamant that he wanted to sell to someone that was going to keep the tradition alive," said MacConnachie.

He spent a month teaching them the homemade recipes, showing them the ins and outs of running a busy little café, with fresh sandwiches made from scratch on the spot in 400 sq. ft.

While retail accounts for 26 per cent of Whistler's GDP, the food and beverage sector accounts for 15 per cent, or $194 million of the $1.3 billion GDP.

It's a significant part of the village experience.

Just this week a tourist came back to Ingrid's on the hope that the "best veggie burger ever" was still available.

It was — the Superior Veggie Burger.

Exactly the same.

There have been a few tweaks to the menu to adapt to the changing trends — adding spice to Ingrid's original recipes like pesto sauce and spicy mayo — and meeting changing health movements.

"The biggest change has been modifying recipes to be gluten free," says Minton.

But with prime Village Square location, the deli is a hotbed of activity, particularly in the summer.

The Secret to Success

It would be easy to put the success of these small independents all down to their locations.

To be true, these oldest stores are on the fringe of one of Whistler's busiest public squares.

But that would belie the work that's involved in running a business in a resort town, where business has often precariously hinged on good weather, a strong American dollar and global wealth.

Recent research reveals the destination visitor accounts for 68 per cent of spending in the resort, followed by the regional visitor at 19 per cent. In other words, tourists account for 85 to 90 per cent of the total spend in Whistler.

They are crucial to the success of Whistler Hardware, Armchair Books, Carlberg's Gifts, Ingrid's Café and others.

And so, the owners have adapted accordingly to changes in the market.

Carlberg-Dew, for example, is at trade shows at least four times a year looking for unique products.

She is focused on bringing in gifts that represent Whistler or Canada in general, particularly those "made in Canada."

"We're gearing toward the new market for China," she says. "They're looking for product that's made in Canada."

Ellis, too, at Armchair has switched up his inventory significantly in recent years to battle the massive changes in the book industry.

Where once the kids' book section was at the back of the store, it's now expanded front and centre with more gifts geared to kids than ever before.

Ellis sells journals and cards and educational toys, all to offset the loss in revenue from books.

Through it all is the hard work involved in running a business.

Davey says it's a passion.

"It takes a lot to work this store," he admits. "You've got to have your heart in it. And you've got to be prepared to put the time in and the devotion. That's what makes it run."

So, while Davey may not be able to see skiers coming down Whistler Mountain any longer, things are still looking good from his vantage point.

His dad's dream of a little hardware store on which to retire is still very alive. And doing very well indeed.

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