Alberni Valley restaurant, customers find creative way to survive the pandemic

The owner of a Sproat Lake restaurant that originally wasn't going to open for the season due to the pandemic says pleas from customers and an innovative idea are what allowed the business to open its doors and flourish. 

"It was our original plan that we weren't going to open at all and a few of our loyal customers came to us and said, ‘Could you please open? We really want you guys to be open, we really enjoy coming out in the summer,’" says Drinkwaters Lakeside Lounge and Dining owner Ross Mitchell.

Mitchell says he and his customers came up with a plan in 2020 that he believes is unique. He says 40 families each put in $500 advances with the understanding that they would draw from that amount with either dine-in or take-out meals within a three-month period.

He says the plan was so successful, the restaurant is doing it again this season, beginning April 2, and expanding it to 120 families.

"It started essentially as a dinner club, and then it evolved into a wine club and then by the end of it, the most amazing thing, we created this community of friendship and kinship and commaradery among all the people committed to keeping this a success," Mitchell says.

He says customers see the arrangement almost as a private restaurant, where the doors are open only to those within that 120-family bubble.

"I think the key thing was locking the door,” Mitchell says. “Everyone felt safe and they knew nobody else was going to come in other than what was inside our family bubble.”

Customer Aaron Vissia says he and his wife were initially hesitant, but are glad they're apart of the agreement.

"Once we got the understanding of how it would work and your full $500 would go towards everything you're purchasing, we found out right away it was so enjoyable. We used that $500 pretty quickly and carried on for the rest of the season," Vissia says.

To be a part of the arrangement, customers must live within the Alberni Valley region. Most are from the Sproat Lake area, including patron Linda Bowers.

"I think what Ross has done for the retirement community at the lake is given us all the opportunity to have a safe, enjoyable dinner. When you come, you don't feel overwhelmed, we're not put in an environment where we're uncomfortable," Bowers says.

Mitchell says cash and credit cards are not used at the restaurant, instead patrons draw down from their initial $500. Customers must also pre-book their times to attend the restaurant, with those slots being spaced 10 minutes apart to minimize contact with other patrons.

Customer Dave Koszegi was one of those who helped line up the initial patrons in 2020 and is spreading the invite for others to join the “bubble families” this year.

"I think it's a moveable model, for sure,” Koszegi says. “I don't know what number you have to get to so that it's viable and profitable, but the fact that something was able to function in the environment was the first step. That was the test and that worked well and the feedback's positive."