If you've been in the Upper Village Milestones at any point in 2018, chances are you won't have noticed anything different at the premium-casual chain. But behind the scenes, there's plenty of change afoot. Earlier this month, Milestones announced a partnership agreement that sees local bar and club operator Gibbons Hospitality taking over management duties at the Whistler location.
According to the restaurant's GM, Bruce Worden, it's a way for Milestones to weather the unpredictability of Whistler's seasonal market while taking advantage of its prime position at the base of Blackcomb.
"We provide good service, good food and a great guest experience. Gibbons is all about the Whistler experience, so what they're going to do is help engage our après business, because we are at the bottom of Blackcomb and ultimately haven't seen the après business that I believe the Upper Village can offer," he explained. "I think we'll see a lot more draw."
Gibbons CEO Joey Gibbons was approached to buy the Upper Village location at last year's Super Bowl in Houston, Texas. Ultimately, he decided against it, settling instead on a managing partnership. Gibbons doesn't expect much to change from an administrative standpoint (the Milestones staff has been retained). Where we're likely to see changes is on the programming side of things, an area the company knows well as the producers of the Whistler Village Beer Festival and, as of last week, the World Ski and Snowboard Festival.
"Milestones has already got really good food, so it's just about connecting them with the community. It's tough in Whistler to have stand-alone places," Gibbons said.
A key part of that challenge has been operating a location that is relatively isolated from Milestones' 40 other restaurants, said Worden.
"Strategically for me as a GM, I think I have a lot more immediate support in my ability to get things done, whereas our nearest (Milestones location) is two hours south if I need help," he noted. The Milestones' extensive menu has also proved a challenge during the winter lunch rush, Worden said, adding that with Gibbons coming onboard, there is now opportunity to consider streamlining the lunch menu.
"If you look around town, more often than not, menus are under 20 items, and we have 48," he explained. "Right now, with such an extensive menu... the timing to get everybody's dish out at the same time is a bit of a challenge."
Gibbons also stands to benefit from the new partnership with the addition of its Gibbons Après Lager to the Milestones taps, with hopes of one day offering the brew at other locations in the chain, as well as at the more than 1,250 restaurants in parent company Cara Operations' portfolio. (Just this week, the country's largest restaurant operator inked a $200-million deal to acquire Keg Restaurants Inc. Cara's other brands include Swiss Chalet, Montana's, Kelsey's and East Side Mario's.)
"We believe that if this community embraces our lager that it will be accepted all over the world," said Gibbons, who added that 100-per-cent of the proceeds from lager sales in 2018 will be put towards the company's sponsorship of local cultural events, athletes and entrepreneurs.
"All of the movies we support, sponsoring the BMX track and the skate park and the motorbike track, all that money in the past was just me writing cheques. We're still going to do that, but we think we can go even further by creating a direct correlation to the product we've got coming out in town," Gibbons said.
The Milestones partnership is just the latest in a series of deals by Gibbons Hospitality, which has ramped up its expansion efforts in recent years with, for instance, the acquisition of Stonesedge Restaurant in the village, the launching of Norman Rudy's pub in Squamish, and its foray into the retail sector with its Gibbons-branded store in the Westin.
Gibbons said he's well aware of the danger of saturating the local market, which is why he strives to provide diverse experiences tailored to the clientele at each of his half-dozen other Whistler venues.
"I Iook at each opportunity and truly ask myself, can we do it better?" he said. "As long as I think we're being honest to the community, honest to the guests in town and honest to our employees... we'll continue to look for new opportunities."