Visiting Vancouver Island usually includes a day or two in the bohemian provincial capital, Victoria, followed by a trek north into British-Columbian wilderness or hugging the craggy, wind-swept western coast with most roads ending in Tofino. Along the way are picturesque mountain ranges, hiking trails and some truly incredible people from all walks of life.
Blink and you’ll miss the turnoff along the TransCanada Highway where lies a luxury resort situated atop the Malahat Range, just 30 minutes outside Victoria. The 40-room Villa Eyrie Resort overlooks the Saanich Inlet, with spectacularly unobstructed views of the entire lower half of the island and the Olympic Mountains beyond.
Yet views alone are hardly a guarantee of success in either hotel or restaurant oper-ations. They may bring guests once, but don’t necessarily compel them to return. This was the challenge facing Alexander Fischer-Jean, the property’s GM, as well as the resort’s food-and-beverage team. So, Villa Eyrie embarked on a journey to reinvent itself as a food-oriented destination first and foremost, with rooms secondary — all within five months.
Charged with strategy development and tactical plans for this venture was the property’s director of F&B, Ryan Bissell. An executive chef himself, Bissell was already highly regarded in the Greater Vancouver Area for his work on multiple restaurant openings. As Bissell explained, “The issues surrounding a restaurant in a resort are uniquely different than those of a standalone. Here, you need to recognize, first and foremost, the needs of the property’s guests before taking into consideration the ability to attract local, restaurant-only customers.”
The scenario Bissell faced was further complicated by Villa Eyrie’s just-a-touch-too-remote location. Although a 30-minute drive for food may be par for the course in other destinations, for Victorians, the resort is often an insurmountable distance.
The Malahat represents the first major elevation climb as one ventures out from the lowlands surrounding Victoria and driving it from November through March requires mandatory snow tires. Combined with its seemingly treacherous curves, the Malahat has become notorious for numerous accidents, prompting Victorians to steer clear. This was dealt with by the completion of a major roadway expansion in 2018, but memories still linger. Thus, core to any F&B strategy was a tactical program designed to create a significant reason to drive and dine.
The development of this approach hinged on available talent, so it was essential to embrace the creativity of the existing key team leaders, including Michelin-trained executive chef Mario Gross, pastry chef Matthias Conradi and executive sous chef Andreas Wechselberger. Leveraging their collective Germanic heritage, as well as the mountaintop location, it was only natural to land on the unique culinary sales proposition of ‘Alps Meets West Coast’ as a means of enriching the views from every table.
With the senior team in place, attention was directed towards the physical space. Summit Restaurant, as it was originally called, was divided into an informal lounge and a main dining-room — differentiated by tabletop settings and divergent menus. To management’s chagrin, the best views were offered by the lounge area — that is, to patrons with a sizeably lower average cover.
McGreachy Design Studio was engaged to deliver a more vibrant dining experience, encompassing capital expenses such as new tables, carpeting, lighting and wall coverings. The interior-design firm helped recreate the space — rebranded as Alpina Restaurant — with a modern European atmosphere and increased seating capacity from 78 to 94.
Next came a thorough examination of the wine list. While the existing list had won local awards, it wasn’t telling a cohesive regional story. Led by sommelier Sonja Todd, the 2,000-bottle cellar was reshaped over a three-month period to provide the most-extensive selection from B.C.’s best wineries, with representation from every growing region, including the burgeoning Cowichan Valley located mere minutes north of Villa Eyrie.
Moreover, all the wines at Alpina Restaurant would not be available at traditional liquor retailers in the province, thereby offering a drinking experience unlike any other eatery. With more than 200 different labels on the menu, a La Verre de Vin wine-recorking machine was added to ensure more than 50 of these vintages could be served by the glass. Lastly, two dozen Old-World wines were selected from regions in and around the Alps.
Beyond the wine list, other beverages then came under close scrutiny. The coffee contract was transferred to a local roastery called Drumroaster, which created custom blends for Villa Eyrie, while Toronto-based Metropolitan Tea Company was chosen to provide a diverse assortment from its luxury METZ product line. Next, Hoyne Brewery, also on Vancouver Island, was given several brew taps. Other local producers, including Sheringham Distillery, Ampersand Distilling and Sea Cidery, were enlisted to provide further regional specificity. Lastly, a non-alcoholic cocktail program was also initiated using Seedlip non-alcoholic spirits.
For the menu redesign, Bissell started by identifying local suppliers who could provide consistent volume and quality, as well as seasonal highlights such as spot prawns, in the early summer months. Working with chef Gross, candidate dishes were developed, tasted and costed. One of the particular challenges faced was establishing price points for appetizers and mains on the dinner menu. The challenge was finding the appropriate balance between portion size and selling price, while also maintaining a target of 35 to 38 per cent food cost.
In addition to an à-la-carte menu, Alpina Restaurant now features both a five-course chef’s tasting menu and a three-course, prix fixe — both with the option of accompanying wine pairings. Cuisine standouts include wild B.C. morel risotto, honey-crusted duck breast and open-faced seafood lasagna. Complementing this are world-class baked goods and confectionaries — all made in-house — which include rhubarb strudel with pistachio gelato (when in season), savoury goat’s-milk cheesecake and a chocolate platter.
As staffing is tight, cross-training of the team was an essential component to realizing success through prompt service delivery and the ability of any staff member to passionately discuss the menu.
The immediate goal was to achieve a $60-per-cover for food with an extra $30-per-cover for beverage. While not there yet, the restaurant is well on its way, with food sales already up 30 per cent year over year.
At present, weekday dinner covers often reflect room occupancy at Villa Eyrie, with a $35 lunch special developed to grow within this gap. Friday and Saturday nights are starting to attract substantially more locals and this is expected to rise commensurate with both targeted advertising and word-of-mouth.
Furthermore, the resort has always been well-known for its weekend brunch and it’s here the culinary team took a more-conservative approach, as the outlet was already averaging about three turns per day. The solution was to convert to a buffet service during these crunch periods — a move that’s generated even more customer praise.
Alpina has come a long way in a very short time from concept to opening — from the physical changes, new suppliers and altered strategies, to changes to the wine program, menu testing and launch promotions. Since its launch in Q2 2019, almost every review posted has had five stars.
Though there are many challenges to come, including the late-summer launch of a second dining outlet called Senna Bar & Lounge, it’s clear Bissell has a good hand on the tiller. As he says, “The true test of any restaurant launch is not in the first week, month or quarter, but in the ability to remain consistent to your core values.”
Larry Mogelonsky is the principal of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited, a Toronto-based consulting practice. He can be reached at [email protected]