For OpenFileWord of Mouth Sustains Illegal Restaurants
On top of festooned tables and behind closed garden doors, food experiences are being created and shared across this city—only, secretly.
Pop-up restaurants—as they’ve been called in other places—are popping up all over this town. At last count there were at least six establishments in HRM—and it seems more are popping up every day.
Underground eateries and cafés are not legitimate by any municipal or provincial standard.
They don’t abide by By-Law C-500, which means they can be fined up to $5,000. And, they don’t have provincial food establishment permits or health permits, or food handling training, generally.
But that doesn’t seem to scare Halifax’s rogue restauranteurs—the same way it doesn’t seem to phase operators of this illegal speakeasy.
OpenFile reached out to proprietors of these establishments to get a sense of who they are, what they are doing and how they see themselves. Entrepreneurs? Business owners? Renegades? Artists? Here’s what we found…
Two friends living apart decided to come together one summer—Greg, living in Toronto at the time, and Al, living here in Halifax. Simple as that, Al and Greg birthed Nina’s Backyard Barbeque.
“The community wants it,” Al said to Greg over the phone one day.” There’s a need for this.’”
Greg, who came back to Halifax for the summer, “got some pig, got some waffle, some slaw, pickled some things, [and] made an invite,” he says. “Took it door to door to all the neighb’s, did the Facebook thing—told everyone I knew. Done deal.”
No red tape, no waiting on accreditation. North End diners were treated to porky, pickle-topped waffles at affordable prices in a twinkly garden.
This wasn’t Greg’s first venture—he ran a few businesses before Nina’s—some legal, some illegal. He sees the main difference between the two as the flexibility.
“If we don’t run it one week, we just say, ‘Oh I just found out I can go to Denmark, so we’re not going to do it this week. And everyone will hear about it and someone might come by and be like, ‘oh it’s not running. OK!’”
The only upside Greg sees to going legit with a business is to make it bigger—and make more profit, maybe. But with Nina’s, “it would be every night and it would be late night and I would worry about my health. Doing it once a week is a great time. That’s enough—there’s other projects to do.”
Greg’s happy to see more pop-ups popping up. He’d even like to see training provided for people, so they could feel confident to put their ideas into action. But for now, he’s happy just to be making fun.
“People running these things are recouping their costs but they’re not really making anything. It’s just about getting together and hanging out.”
Kira felt there was a lack of cozy winter venues in the city. So, she set up brunch in a friend’s one-bedroom apartment.
“I thought of it as a winter project, not as a money-making scheme, she says. “In fact, I quickly grew uncomfortable with taking money from customers, as they were mostly people I knew, [and] considered my friends.”
One complication of underground operations—word travels through friends, so it can often end up quite insular. “It’s easy enough to serve friends—people who are already on-board and familiar with the desire to run and attend a ‘pop-up.’”
“It’s most exciting, I think, to serve someone who is new to the idea and experience, to see them try to understand the scene and the workings around them,” she says.
Though it was hard to take money from friends, Kira put on many sumptuous feasts in that high-ceilinged abode and was paid to provide her community with a mid-morning hang out.
Though she put the effort in, she shies away from the E-word.
“Entrepreneur?…Someone who invests time and energy to actualize an idea? Am I such a person?” she asks. “Jesus Christ…I don’t think I would advertise myself as an entrepreneur. In the same breath, for the months that I ran Potato/Potato, I worked hard.”
Sam and Daina bought a fancy espresso machine, and now they’re using it.
A friend was selling the machine because he and his partner were having a baby. On a whim, they bought it, Sam says, “with no certainty as to how we were going to use it.”
The machine had its debut at Potato Potato’s underground brunch in January. Then, a pal offered them his house for February, so February at The General Café was born. At the end of March, they were in EyeLevel Gallery, finishing as resident coffee artists during the Reshelving Initiative. And April at The General Café was being hosted by the Roberts Street Social Centre, and for May, they’ve partnered with a store on Agricola Street.
Though their digs are constantly in flux, The General maintains the same airy charm wherever they are. With a golden framed chalk menu and jazzy crooners crooning, visitors are instantly calmed and coffeed. These temporary café installments are helping pay off the machine, the pair says, but their priority is creating new spaces in the city.
“I think there’s something missing here where I don’t feel comfortable going somewhere and sitting and reading a book—just hanging out in a space,” says Daina. “And I know that that is not financially viable. You know you can’t just have one person sit in your café all day. But, I like the idea of having that space.”
That’s OK, they say, because the space doesn’t need to make money. Sam and Daina have other day jobs that they live off of, so they can afford to invite customers to buy a $2 espresso and sit around for hours.
Do they feel they’re entrepreneurs?
“I guess I don’t love the word,” says Daina. “I can see it in a negative light…if someone wants to open a business and it doesn’t even matter what business it is—[and] they just want to make money, that’s when it becomes a little less honourable.
Sam isn’t quite sure. “I don’t feel that we are entrepreneurs at this point at all, but I feel good about people I know who are doing things that are entrepreneurial.”
Krista just started The Castle about a month ago. She’s always loved cooking and was getting rave reviews from roommates, so decided to open up her house and charge people for the pleasure of her cuisine.
She provides an upscale experience—three course meals with elaborate recipes from all over the world.
“Halifax doesn’t really have a lot of variety. I’m thinking of running a Cuban menu next month—Halifax doesn’t really offer that, as far as I know.”
She’s learning as she goes.
“I’m thinking about going to culinary school, and I’m not certain, so this is a way to see if I have what it takes to cook for that many people.”
At this point, she’s not worried about the legalities of what she’s doing. The Castle seats about eight people and Krista can’t imagine anyone having a problem with that.
“If it does reach the point where I am garnering a lot of interest and I’m exceeding what I can do, then I might consider renting out a space somewhere and doing this in a more legitimized manner. I just don’t have the money or really the inclination to do it right now.”
But Krista doesn’t shrink away from the notion of entrepreneurship—she’s run other businesses. She’s a freelance photographer by trade and once owned a rental photobooth company in Florida.
“For me, a lot of what I do with any sort of business venture is a lot more about a learning experience than anything else,” she says, “because I’m still at that point in my life where I’m not really certain what direction I’m going.”
JESS’S BREADS, CANS AND CATERING
Jess is a North End mover and shaker. She has three business, one of which she has the proper permits for, and the other two she keeps under the table. Sitting at her table as she’s slicing onions, Jess says she’s from a long line of entrepreneurs.
“Historically, it kind of fits in my family,” she says. “On my dad’s side, they are all entrepreneurs. I’m not very close with that part of the family, but it is part of my family legacy.”
For her it means being self-employed and working hard. “It means finding a market and then generating the energy it takes to produce something to sell and doing that repetitively, consistently and really excellently.”
And that’s what she does. Her legit business is selling bread at one of the farmers’ markets and through a CSB (Community Supported Bakery) she started two years ago. Her not-so-legit businesses are a canning club (CSC, of course) she started with a friend last year, and a secretive catering company she developed with her cooking friend Ben. They’ve done some weddings and community events and, last summer, they were making door-to-door deliveries.
In all of her businesses Jess works hard to maximize the pleasure she can get out of them. She’s taken unconventional routes to maintain her businesses debt-free. This means thinking about risks and gains a little differently than a conventional business. She has the risk of getting pregnant and not having maternity leave or of injuring herself on the job and not having the necessary insurance. But for Jess, the gains outweigh those risks.
“I do things in a very unconventional way. I rebel against major social expectations and produce things in a pretty uncapitalistic way. Sometimes, I make no money from what I do—and I know that—and I do it because it makes me happy or because it’s something exciting.”
“That’s another reason why entrepreneurism here is a good idea for people.” She tells me, mid onion slice, “There aren’t actually that many opportunities for me here, but I really want to live here and I’ve found a niche for myself and I really maximize it and it’s allowed me to stay here and I’m grateful for that.”
Photo by Katie McKay.