by Elaine Story, SD #91 (Nechako Lakes)
Señor Duggies Tacos and Pizzeria: from Miner to Restauranteur
When first contacted and given details about this project, I was eager to know more.
Living in ‘small-town-rural’ there is a curiosity to know how the other half lives. People in ‘rural’ doubt the platitude of city dwellers who unilaterally control the planning, the arguments and most workplace details right down to the logo design.
To be asked into a project where our data would not just be heard but could have the potential to change federal employment initiatives, felt like a twisted form of restorative justice. “Ask the victims of unemployment how it feels to be shuttered.”
Give the microphone to the truck driver, the labourer, the single parent, the dads, the near retirees … let’s hear what they have to say.
In isolated under-served communities such as ours, there is a ’make-do’ philosophy among us. Most industry-based towns labour under the ‘best-guess-philosophy’ of the remaining ore body, the health of the forests, the run-off, freeze-up, not to mention swings in the stock market. We are pawns in the employment game.
Our industry-based community matched the displacement criteria when the largest employer –a Molybdenum Mine, closed in 2015, displacing 300 workers. Our research would focus on many of those workers who were reluctant to access skills training or employment services due to low literacy skills.
There would be many requirements during the three-year project. I was worried that such a commitment would take from my other jobs and our family time.
The project seemed doable — name a task force, hold information sessions, collect data, enlist displaced workers to fill in a survey, write a case study from a community perspective and be involved in beta testing a new model to address future displacements.
The opportunity put into doubt my personal insecurities.
Was I the best person for the job?
What was my personal skillset?
How would I measure up to the research team and other team members?
In consideration of the opportunity, I could argue that I knew the subjects well, I had first-hand knowledge of the events that led to the displacement, and the project presented like an opportunity to help.
Going with the “If not YOU then WHO? line of thinking,” I and all the study group leaders were constantly reassured that we were indeed up to the task and we were ‘rock stars’ in our own right. “We” were to be a part of a collective story. A story with an ability to reach far into the future and influence displacement standards for the employer, the worker, and the community.
When the original questionnaire surfaced and I shared it with our literacy outreach teams, I had no idea how this one email could elicit such power. From the first phone interview I envisioned where we could go with our story.
As I shared at the meet-up in Vancouver, I was all-in from the first call. In the past I have never said ’No’ to questionnaires on health in rural communities, politics, pipelines, infrastructure, environment, and education. But, when I hang up the phone, I give an “As IF” into the speaker as it goes dead, expecting never to hear from them again.
What was different with this interview was the excitement in Heather’s voice. The “No shit Sherlock” tone as the offer was made. The research could only be as good as the subjects and the details. And I had details in spades. And so many subjects to expound upon.
In 2014, when my husband phoned from work and said, “We just got notice. They are stopping production. All the staff will be the first to go. It doesn’t look good.” It was December 14th. I was devastated!
It felt wrong and somehow shameful that we were powerless to such an announcement. There was nothing we could do about it. And yes, THEY could walk in and say, “The price of molybdenum has dropped substantially, and we are cutting production until further notice!” Virtually overnight we became a “Mining Town” without a mine. There was more at stake then job losses. There was a need for a whole new rebranding, a new identity.
The local sawmill employed 200-250 workers and some dual industry-equipment operators and labourers took the opportunity to seek employment there. But that wasn’t the case for 250 members of the mining workforce.
Miners and loggers were fairly unique to their environment—while both plied the earth for riches, ore was specific to a landscape, and brought in professionals from all around the world. Miners were an international mix from Australia, the Philippines, and many from eastern Canada — there was a lot of diversity in the mining population. Loggers were more likely to be born and raised in the area. And several under their employ worked an entire career at the same mill. Miners moved around more. With mining towns scattered across Canada, many moved from Flin Flon, to the Yukon, to Gibraltar, to places like Granisle, Huckleberry and Endako.
The December issue of the Phraser Connector showed two fully loaded Haul trucks driving away from the worksite.
…DENVER, COLORADO (Marketwired –December 10, 2014)
Thompson Creek announced today that it and its joint venture partner Sojitz Moly Resources Inc have agreed to place the Endako Molybdenum mine on temporary suspension effective December 31, 2014 due to continued weakness in the molybdenum market. Approximately 50% of the salaried employee’s will be terminated resulting in estimated severance cost of $1.7 million. Hourly employees were notified today that their employment will be temporarily suspended in 60 days and will remain so suspended while the Mine is on temporary suspension. … We will closely monitor markets … re-evaluate … express our gratitude to our employees during this challenging time.
I queried in the December editorial I wrote “What does this mean to me and you and to the town and the neighbourhoods and the business community and the high school and the clinic the police station and the tree on Mouse Mountain? What will happen to families? What about the smiles and Dad’s lunchbox by the front door? Undoubtedly a new normal will be reached and both the optimists and the pessimists will have their day. Quotes will be quipped, and speeches will be spieled, and another door will open.”
The final Endako Mine Christmas party followed three days later. Employees made an effort to suspend the ‘gloom’ and enjoy festive food, dancing and drinking. There were bittersweet moments where the mine manager posed in group pics. This latest one had been the charm. Managers had circulated through the site so quickly they were given numbers not names. But the Aussie with a broad smile had befriended many.
He often enjoyed a night of drinking with the lads and won the hearts of many staffers. There was speculation he came to the mine knowing of the upcoming suspension. There are protocols in place to handle mass layoffs — job placements within the company, early retirement packages, and in some cases, there are re-training opportunities. Following mass layoffs such as this in 2014, governments step in with some kind words to temper moods and WorkBC sets up skills training courses for impacted workers.
When a small town experiences ‟a shift in the labour market due to a curtailment of operations,” the effect is far-reaching … everyone hurts. The announcement burned across the phone lines and by nightfall the whole town felt like they had been let go and letdown.
By sunrise, these pink-slip employees were in mourning. It was not a secular event. Workers grieved, friends and family grieved along with them. We shared this collective event—the mine closure affected us all. Job searchers scattered in hundreds of different directions. Some went north to far and away camps with a ‘21 & 7’ or a ‘7 & 7’ or a ‘month in & month out.’ Others stayed local and went back to the forest industry. Some kicked back and took early retirement and some locked into unemployment insurance benefits. In the years since, hundreds of resume-brandishing, lunchbox-toting men and women found their way to new opportunities and for some, new towns.
One story stood out amongst the rest. This was the story about Doug. He was an industry-based worker with an accumulation of on the job skills and an aptitude for driving all pieces of heavy equipment. Doug worked in the forest industry which gave him equipment training that was transferable to the mining industry where he would end up.
Doug was a friendly and likeable guy who was quite recognizable through all the seasons in his long shorts, wool socks, and sandals. His trademark signature outfit instantly made you think of ‘warmer climates’ no matter how low the mercury dropped.
Prior to his job at the mine, he ran yarders in logging. Hi-Lead logging on steep slopes. With equipment and ropes, stiff spars, and yarders they would drag huge logs down off steep slopes to the landings below. He worked all over BC…North Coast, South Coast, the Interior and the Okanagan. “It was a dangerous career, it was fun. Ropes and yarders, I knew I was meant to be a yarder after the first choker I set.”
Doug didn’t know much about Fraser Lake other than it was one of many communities he passed on his way to the Terrace and Kitimat area where he worked. When he got a job there in 2006, he was soon to learn all about the community. He settled into shift work and the demands of a full-time truck driver. Hauling ore from the various pits to the crusher day in and day out. The pay was good and with four days off there was lots of time for hanging out with his buddies.
Right up to the December announcement, Doug, like many others had no idea they were about to become just another causality of stock market fluctuation. Following the notice, some upper staff were let go quite quickly.
“We worked right up ‘til mid March that year. Some guys in the pit were doing clean-up jobs from February on. There were still 200 some odd working right up until March. After March it was pretty much a skeleton crew.”
After nine years, Doug worked his last shift at Endako Mine on March 14, 2015. “I figured it was time to go on a holiday. So, I took off for six months to South America.” Calling it a sabbatical, Doug flew to South America for half a year, came back to Fraser Lake for two weeks and did all the paperwork for the buyout and took off back to South America.
He left Fraser Lake not thinking about a career but more about the buyout and what it could buy him in South America. “I was thinking about opening a store in South America. A little corner store with liquor and groceries.” Doug had pretty good friends down there. Two Latino friends in Chile and a bunch in Mexico. He understood the culture there. “While I was yarder logging, I would go to South America five to six months every year. I rented a house down there for the whole year. When we were closed down and I had time off, I would go there for two weeks at a time several times a year. I just loved the cooking. I loved the culture and learned how to cook their food.” Doug lived with a Mexican woman and always paid attention to what spices she used.
“I learned how to cook Mexican food by eating many of the traditional dishes she served.”
When he came back to Fraser Lake after a second time in South America, he had no idea what he was going to do.
“I kept driving by this place (it was a Greek Restaurant called Stavros) and wondered if they would be interested in leasing it to me. I approached the landlord and she said yes. Not one to sit too long on an idea, Doug did up a business plan. He began in March 2016 ‘looking into it’ and one year later he opened his doors.
“I started talking to Community Futures about getting help with a business plan and everything grew from there.”
The provincial government offered a Bridging Employment Program, and Doug received help from them to get his plan off the ground.
“I think I made $220 a week but it was enough to get me started. I did this partly on a dare. I had good parties at my house at Super Bowl and things like that. I cooked Mexican food and packed the house every time. Everybody said I should open a restaurant. So, I did.”
When he opened his doors to Senor Duggies Tacos & Pizzeria in 2017, the first few days were fairly quiet. Within weeks it was crazy busy, and it was all he could do to keep up.
“In the spring of 2018 I thought about packing it in. And then at the end of July, the wildfires started. I don’t know why I didn’t just throw in the towel. Too stubborn I guess.”
In our area, the summer of 2018 was the driest on record. With humidity close to that of an arid desert, at the first sign of an errant spark and lighting, the bush exploded. Wildfires ravaged the community for almost four months that year. Beginning at the end of July, the Shovel Lake and the Island Lake fire threatened the community from the west and from the north. Raging to within five kilometers of the village virtually overnight, the air filled with putrid unrelenting smoke that had streetlights coming on at 2 pm in the afternoon.
An evacuation displaced several hundred homeowners, and with everyone else on high alert, people were in a fight or flight state with bags packed and ready by the door. Throughout the days and nights, townsfolk gathered at many viewing spots along the lakes to watch columns of flames eat their way down mountainsides and explode in the water below.
A huge work camp was set up in town behind the arena and at its fullest capacity over 900 out of province workers from as far away as Australia and Mexico were housed there. Destroying over 200,000 hectares of raw timber, the 2018 fires left the area devastated.
Duggies was a refuge for some of the helicopter crews who were stationed at the near-by airport. Unlike all of the workforce sleeping in tents and being fed from the camp kitchen, the pilots were sleeping in air-conditioned hotel rooms and eating on their own. For a group of them, Duggies became their hangout after hours spent either in the air or sitting on stand-by at the airport. He was happy to accommodate their erratic hours and their smoky clothing. He grew to know them by name and was happy to prepare meals for them long after the doors should have been closed.
Running a restaurant was something clearly out of his wheelhouse, and it definitely was an undertaking considered by no others. But in the back of his mind were the urgings of his friends.
“Yeah, you can’t do this! I dare ya!” He thought with a good business plan, good staff and great service, he could do it. “When you have this vision, and great support, it can be done. My waitress Jananne has been with me since the beginning. She looks after the front end stuff, does all the training and really, she had more experience than me.”
Doug admitted that cooking is such a small part of the whole success of the restaurant. “You need that continuity in everything. Jananne has my back. Some of the new trainees are only there because of the tips. And sometimes the tips are absolutely stupid. But the tips are only good when the service and the food is good. It has to be good to get big tips.”
From the beginning Doug only took what he needed to keep afloat. “I am a proprietorship—I only take enough to live by and pay my bills.”
He was asked to expand to Prince George and take over the restaurant at the PG Golf and Country Club.
“I thought about taking it on as a contract, but then I would have to give this up.”
At the beginning he came up with the Mexican menu and Jananne came up with the menu on the western side. She did the salads and burgers, and he came up with the burritos, tacos, and enchiladas. The restaurant walls are written with messages from some of the hundreds of patrons who have eaten there. The writing has always been on the walls in the colourful restaurant.
“When I took over the lease, I agreed I would leave the existing writing and not paint over it. It’s a legacy to Stavros who ran it as a Greek restaurant before me.”
“It’s pretty cool when a guy puts a great comment on Heck Yeah Fraser Lake … saying he always stops in here on his way through and it is great, great food.”
He admits there are always complaints but “you gotta take those with a grain of salt. Some people have nothing better to do than to complain.”
In the first year, he re-built and added the licenced patio. And last year in 2019, he began to climb out of the hole.
“But, then COVID-19 hit in March and business dropped by 80%. To stay alive, I did take-out and delivery. That really helped and I had to cut the staff down by three, which cut costs as well.”
Doug is hoping to be out of the hole by the end of the year, but he fully understands there are always unexpected replacement costs when things break down.
This year, to stay afloat, they have cut back staff, cut back hours and had to cut back seating. Plus, he has purchased new signs to put on his vehicle and wherever he goes; it draws a lot of attention to the business even when he is out of town.
“I have regulars from Houston to Prince George. We had quite a few of the helicopter pilots eat here in 2018 during the fires, and since then we’ve had some business from some of the gas-line crews.” In talking about training possibilities Doug admits that to become a chef you have to train where you are going to be super, super busy.
“You have to be where it’s so busy you just want to yell! If the customers get mad it’s put on the kitchen. You have to deal with that kind of stress!”
During COVID-19, the wage subsidy helped for those slow months. Once the federal government began their Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) laid off workers opted to stay home rather than go to work and get paid the same.
“I employ 11 people in a small community. It’s amazing really. But in a bigger centre it would scare me how busy it would get. The second weekend I was open it scared me, I was so busy. In 2019, they were double parking out here. They were lined up to the pole from the Crisis Centre this way.”
It doesn’t freak him out anymore. And he’s adjusted overhead costs to include replacing things like a dishwasher, three microwaves, a meat slicer, four blenders and this summer — new chairs.
Keeping up with the balance sheet is how to stay alive. “We do spreadsheets. Since COVID we do them weekly. I can see trends. In March when it first hit, we took a nosedive. It went down, down, down, before it levelled off. We made $200 to $300 a day. Then it leveled off. Then it came back up.”
While they are nowhere close to their normal summer numbers, they have less staff, and do more take-out and delivery. “Some days it’s 80% take-out. It’s a great atmosphere and I have no regrets. I just jumped in and said I am going to do this!” Would he ever go back to Mexico to open his little store? The answer is no.
In looking to the future of the town and the possibility of job training, Doug says computer training, environmental, reforestation, fish and wildlife would work here. It would put good local people to work. Any type of training that builds people’s confidence so they can fulfill their dreams and build a career based on a dare.
“Teaching good waitressing skills is as important as teaching someone to cook. You need all that when you run a business like this.”
While there are chefs and there are waitresses, it takes gumption and a great partnership to keep a business running in a small town in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s stories like this that demonstrate how to truly be entrepreneurial. To take the dare, to adjust and downsize when times get tough, but to always follow your dream.
Throughout the north, every town has at least one Chinese restaurant and most of us are accustomed to the menu of deep-fried prawns, chicken chop suey with rice, soy sauce and sesame seeds. When Duggie opened his restaurant in Fraser Lake, many queried if people would even dine there. Within weeks of opening, the naysayers had checked it out, and tried the enchiladas, chimichangas, tacos, the pico de gallo and the pizza, and found every dish to be delicious and memorable.
Since opening in 2017, Duggie has established a very loyal fan base of customers not just for the great taste of his Mexican food, but for his cheery greetings and the friendly atmosphere. Passersby are surprised to find a truly authentic restaurant in a small town, and it is not unusual for customers to make special trips from the city to get a taste of their favourite tacos or enchiladas.
There have been numerous ups and downs and as alluded to earlier, there were nights after all the ink dried, the former ‘yarder’ slash heavy-equipment operator had to question his decision to invest in a small town or Mexico with a population of 128 million.
His story is a true testament to the power of a dare and how it can lead you to living your life’s dream and surviving a work displacement that affected you and 500 of your closest friends.