Monday, August 29, 2011

A restaurant unlike any other seeks a new home

The restaurateur Corey Judd seeks a new home for Cabin 12, a welcoming gathering place for patrons and staff alike. Chad Hipolito photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 29, 2011


On a chill February morning, Corey Judd opened the doors to his restaurant, ready for another ordinary day of slinging hash.

“All of a sudden two black limousines pulled up outside,” he recalled. “Large men with sunglasses and earpieces walked in.”

Soon, he was preparing eggs benedict and hash browns for a party of six, including David Jacobson, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, who was in the province to attend the Winter Olympics.

The ambassador’s unexpected appearance came about because the restaurant faced a shortage of coffee mugs. The owners — Mr. Judd and partners Dan and Heather Del Villano — came up with the idea of sending letters to every nation participating in the Olympics asking for a souvenir cup.

They got mugs from Chile and Greece. The ambassador, in Victoria to speak to a $30-a-plate business luncheon at the swanky Union Club, delivered a mug in person.

In that moment, Mr. Judd can be forgiven if he allowed himself a moment to imagine success for his restaurant. It opened 30 months ago on a small fund raised through social media. He had no access to credit, nor did he have a home address, spending the early months living in a back room. The doors stayed open thanks to the benevolence of a landlord who preferred late payment to none at all.

It was a business launched on a shoestring potato. The economic downturn hurt. The introduction of the HST hurt. Even a modest expense not in the budget, such as replacing a front window broken overnight by a drunk, threatened the restaurant. Happily, patrons and downtown businesses to contribute to the repairs.

Now, the joint faces its toughest challenge yet. The building has been sold and will be gentrified. The restaurant now needs to find a new home.

Mr. Judd’s first thought: “Here we go again. It’s been one thing after another after another after another. Starting with nothing and no credit. Then the broken window. Then the summer from hell. Then the HST. Then the Olympics.

“It hasn’t been easy to open a restaurant in the past two-and-a-half years in Victoria.”

The irrepressibly optimistic restaurateur is scouting other downtown sites.

His restaurant, with the puzzling but not uninviting name Cabin 12, can be found tucked into the shady north side of the Plaza Hotel, a building best known as home to Monty’s, a strip club. Cabin 12 is a welcoming respite from the sometimes unfriendly scene on the street outside, where drug dealing and other unpalatable activities take place.

Eating at Cabin 12 is like breakfast at your mom’s place — if your mother was a cross between Grandma Moses and Patti Smith.

A turntable greets diners and music is chosen to suit the mood of the room from a generous collection of vinyl. The works of local artists cover the walls, the works for sale without commission. Canadian Tire money is accepted at par and the staff has accumulated about $150 worth of Sandy McTire scrip.

“I’m trying to create a space where people feel they are in their grandma’s house 20 years ago lying on the carpet playing gin rummy,” he said.

The Frommer’s travel guide notes “rambling, artsy charm” and food that is “down-to-earth scrumptious.”

The menu includes an item saucily billed as the HST (hash browns, sausage, toast) with the admonition: “It’s good for you! You’ll learn to like it! Trust us.” A breakfast sandwich is named after popular local columnist Jack Knox, who has championed the restaurant. The menu item is, as the columnist acknowledged, “scrambled and cheesy.” (Mr. Knox fancies himself an award-losing journalist, though having a sandwich named after oneself is the second-highest accolade known to the journalism profession. The highest? Having an alcoholic drink named after you.)

Mr. Judd named Cabin 12 after a favourite cabin at a camp at which he once worked.

The restaurant opened after a rough patch in his personal life, during which a struggle with alcohol and then marijuana dependency left him close to “falling off the edge.”

These days, he hires people — the staff now numbers 16 — who have similarly overcome difficult circumstances.

“We’re looking at a business model which takes people off the streets. Not for any philanthropic reason. Like me, if you’ve lived on the edge for a long time, you’re very resourceful.”

Cabin 12 is not just a restaurant, but a cause, and a change of address is just another temporary roadblock to be overcome on the road to redemption.


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