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The changing face of Whistler dining

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We may have seen a few restaurants fold in the face of tough economic times, but it appears that there are still plenty of businesses interested in wading into the Whistler market.

The community very recently lost four restaurants: Milestones, Zen Sushi, Seven and Apres. Now, there are some major national chains showing significant interest in Whistler, including White Spot, Panago Pizza and The Bread Garden.

According to the Tourism Whistler website, the revamped and renamed Coast Fairways Hotel - now known as the AAVA Whistler Hotel - will reopen in November, complete with a brand-new White Spot on location. That was confirmed by TA Enterprise CEO Datin Alicia Tiah in an interview with Malaysia's The Star Online .

The Bread Garden currently operates 12 urban cafes throughout the province, with another six locations on the way. One of those new locations will be here in Whistler, where it'll employ 15 to 25 people. It's taking over the former home of Seven, a 3,500 square foot space smack dab in the centre of Town Plaza, and should be open for business by the beginning of July.

Chris Quinlan is not only a municipal councillor, but he's also president of Restaurant Association of Whistler (RAW), the former owner of Behind the Grind, and now owns Quinny's Café in the upper village.

Since forming just over a year ago, RAW has grown to include 45 member establishments that meet on a monthly basis, presenting a unified voice for Whistler's restaurants in terms of marketing, purchasing, and community relations. They also keep a close eye on all of the industry happenings, and lately, there's been a lot of action on that front, in terms of closures and openings.

Quinlan points out that lease rates in Whistler are extremely high, and that expense - $85 per square foot compared with an industry average of $35 per square foot - is hard for almost any restaurant to deal with. But Quinlan points out that national chains usually have the financing to help weather tough economic times and slow shoulder seasons.

It's unclear what will be going into the spaces vacated by Zen Sushi and Apres in Creekside and on Main Street respectively. However, a recent council agenda package suggested that the former home of Apres may be converted into retail space, as an expansion for the existing Le Chateau.

"As a councillor, I represent the municipality on the retail strategy core committee, and one of the things that we're looking at there is trying to identify and somehow or another preserve existing restaurant space, because restaurants are such a critical component to the success of the resort," Quinlan said.

The future of long-time après fixture Citta is also still up in the air. Sonia Bozzi has owned the restaurant for 25 years, and while she hopes it remains in the space indefinitely, they're currently still in negotiations with the landlord over the lease, and it's operating on a month-to-month basis.

Quinlan adds that long-standing, locally owned and operated businesses like Ingrid's, Rim Rock Café and La Rúa need to have a strong presence in the community.

"What concerns me as a councillor and as (part of) the Restaurant Association is that we lose the individual signatures that we get to put on the restaurants that really, really make Whistler the special place that it is," Quinlan added.

"...The face of all the business in town is changing - restaurants aren't immune to that. I really look towards trying to make sure that we have that Whistler uniqueness - that flavour - to our restaurants."

Zip Dhanani, president and CEO of the Bread Garden, explained that the Vancouver-based business is actually making a long-term commitment to the community, signing a 20-year lease with the landlord, and adds that they're "absolutely not" coming to town just to capitalize on the Olympics.

"Whistler has a very unique characteristic," Dhanani said. "First of all, to me, it's in the top five resorts in the world. We're a Vancouver-based company, so it was only logical that if you look at a ski resort like Whistler, that we have some presence here."

The local pizza scene seems to have hit its stride in troubled economic times, as well.

Fat Tony's took over the Daily Slice about a month and a half ago, and the owners also have plans to open a third location at the former home of Cyber Web Internet Café in late June or early July, after construction is complete.

Panago Pizza may also be opening up in Whistler before the end of the year. Graham Fane, director of development for the B.C.-based pizza chain, confirmed that Panago has a location in mind, but explained that they're in the midst of securing the right franchisee for the opportunity.

There's also at least one new homegrown operation setting up shop here in Whistler: an organic flatbread pizza company that plans to open in the long-vacant restaurant space in the Creekside Lodge.

So keep an eye out for all the new eats and treats that are heading this way.

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