Jeff Stipec is the Chief Operating Officer for Milestones Grill & Bar, which has a total of 42 locations around the country, including 17 restaurants right here in B.C. But long before earning the fancy title of COO, Stipec was a Whistlerite, moving to the community in 1991 to accept a position with Intrawest.
"It was a random opportunity," Stipec recalled. "I had worked at the Keg Restaurants for eight years and I planned to go back to school in January and start my Masters."
But one fateful December day, he received a phone call from Intrawest offering him an opportunity to operate one of Blackcomb's restaurants for four months.
"I didn't really know anything about them at the time. I operated a restaurant in the village right next to the Longhorn. It was great; we had a great year! We did way better than was anticipated and that summer, the summer of 1992, they offered me the job as director of food and beverage for the whole mountain."
Stipec remained with the company for almost 15 years before accepting a position with Cara Operations Limited. Last year Cara appointed Stipec Chief Operating Officer for Milestones.
Now, Stipec is getting a chance to return to his Whistler roots in a roundabout way, as Milestones is set to open a new location in the Upper Village at the end of November. Early last week, Stipec made the trip from Toronto to check out some potential new staff members and do a walkthrough of the company's new digs - the 7,000 square foot property that was home to Monk's Grill for almost 20 years.
The news will probably raise a few eyebrows around town, as another Milestones location, tucked away across Main Street from the library, closed in April 2009.
Stipec took over Milestones last fall - after the Whistler location had already closed. He explained that the lease had expired and they were interested in finding a better location. They ultimately selected the site at the base of Blackcomb, which Stipec feels will offer plenty of foot traffic.
"It will be a flagship; we're going to be very proud to have a Milestones sign right at the base of the mountain."
And Stipec, being no stranger to Whistler, is well aware of the many challenges that the food and beverage industry faces in this town.
"I think in Whistler, you can typically get by one challenge or one obstacle in this market: you can get by with either a challenging location or a menu that might not be on the mark, or problems with staff... but I think when you have more than one obstacle, it's really challenging. That's when you see a lot of the restaurants up here suffer.
"...I know the market: I've built the Glacier Lodge, the Roundhouse, I've been involved in Merlin's and the Garibaldi Lift Company, so I think I bring some market intelligence that will hopefully help us out."
And while the Upper Village is certainly an ideal locale in the winter season, how do they plan to weather the slower shoulder seasons?
"I think the number one thing for us is that we have to, from day one, appeal to the locals."
Well, with promotions like their Girl's Night Out, which features four Bellinis and four appetizers for $40, they shouldn't have a problem getting Whistler residents through the door.
(Now, let's be clear: Whistler residents aren't cheap. They just want good value for their money.)
But in Stipec's mind, capturing the local market is essential to their success in this community.
"Whenever anybody goes on holidays, whether they go to Hawaii or you go to Mexico, or you go on a ski holiday, you always want to know, 'Where do the locals go?'" Stipec reflected.
"...If we can appeal to that and if we can speak to that local market, I think we have a really, really good chance of success."
Another key part of the equation is, of course, the food.
"You'll see a lot of the different national chains, and they may be focused on the design of their building or staff uniforms or bars; we're really focused on the plate," Stipec said. "Whistler really is a leader when it comes to food and culinary expertise, so if we want to make a food statement, this is a great stage to do that."
Milestones is all about "upscale casual dining," dishing up "familiar food with a twist." Well, the menus I snagged from my interview with Stipec certainly reflect those aspirations: their "Seasonal Inspirations" sheet includes dishes like a goat cheese and roasted beet salad, steamed mussels & frites and spicy harissa chicken, a chili-spiced grilled chicken breast inspired by Tunisia, North Africa, layered with creamy Fontina cheese and drizzled with a lemon mint yogurt. Yum!