Jamie O’Neil and Lisa Elsworth are new to Creston, and to restaurant ownership, but they are confident that their passion for fresh, quality ingredients, interesting recipes and customer service will help their newly opened Real Food Café succeed.
The cafe, located at 223 10th Ave. N., across from the firehall, opened only last week, but already word of mouth has helped fill tables in the lower floor of the building and the patio out back.
“The response has been quite wonderful,” Elsworth said on Monday. “We were content to start with a soft opening, but people we know have been sending their friends and coming themselves. It has been busier than we expected during our first days in business.”
Elsworth and O’Neil are new to Creston, but they are old hands in the hospitality business. O’Neil was born in Scotland and left home at the age of 16.
“I always worked in kitchens,” he said. “I started out washing dishes and learned on the job. Then I studied cooking in London.”
The couple met in Massachusetts when they both lived among a group that shared the rent of a large house. Eventually they paired up and returned to the United Kingdom — Elsworth is English — where they worked in hotels.
They spent a dozen years in the United States, mostly in Colorado and Alaska, where they worked in resorts and on small adventure cruise ships.
Colorado and Alaska?
“We love outdoor life, ” Elsworth explained.
When they weren’t working — he as a chef and she as a hotel manager and ship’s purser — they hiked and camped and fell in love with the mountains and forests.
Working at a remote hot springs resort in Alaska, O’Neil said they weren’t the only non-North Americans who couldn’t get enough of the scenery.
“We’d go outside at night and see Japanese tourists, bundled in winter gear, lying on the ground hoping to see the Aurora Borealis,” he laughed. “It might have been cloudy, but they were only there for a few days and they weren’t going to miss a chance to see the light show.”
After 12 years in the U.S., they returned to the United Kingdom, this time to Scotland.
“But we just couldn’t adjust,” Elsworth said. “We’d fallen in love with open spaces and natural landscapes.”
For the next three years they resided in Bulgaria, an experience they enjoyed immensely.
“We bought an old farmhouse to restore,” O’Neil said. “We had a tent set up in the bedroom and the locals thought we were quite strange — no running water in the kitchen or bathroom and a tent inside the house!”
Neighbours took the couple under their wing, though, and soon they were helping to set up a campground and restaurant nearby.
“Bulgaria is just now being discovered by tourists,” Elsworth said. “Dutch and German people love it. It’s so cheap compared to Europe. The food, wine and museums are incredibly affordable.
“We could have lived there for the rest of our lives, but you need a challenge in life, don’t you?”
For their next adventure the couple wanted an English speaking country where they could establish their own business. Twenty years ago they traveled with backpacks from Nova Scotia to the Yukon.
“Everyone was so nice and friendly,” Elsworth recalls. “The World Cup soccer tournament was going on and we would get invited into houses to watch games when people learned we were football fans.”
They chose Creston after travelling around the Kootenays in a rental car. Arriving earlier this year, their impression was decidedly different from their only other visit a couple of years earlier.
“We came through on a November evening,” Elsworth recalled. “The weather was dismal and everything seemed to be closed. It was a bit depressing.”
Their arrival this year gave them a completely different impression. They met people, saw the effects of the Canyon Street revitalization program and learned about the newly constructed aquatic centre.
“We just got the feeling that there is great potential here,” she said. “And our impression of Canyon Street was very positive. Creston feels like it is ready to take off.”
After considering other locations, Elsworth and O’Neil purchased the 12th Street building, once home to Canada Manpower and most recently to the administration offices of Creston and District Society for Community Living.
Renovations were soon underway and the couple was astonished at the support of people they had only recently met.
Nearby homeowners Ted and Lily Heynen offered a rental suite, then their entire house when they went south for the winter. The provided storage space, encouragement and, most importantly, friendship.
“They have just been such a calming influence for us,” Elsworth said.
She and O’Neil knew they wanted a restaurant with a farmhouse atmosphere and as many local ingredients as possible, and soon were making connections with people who share their passion for fresh, locally grown food.
“Gary and Susan Snow have been wonderful friends and we are using their Tabletree cherry juice and reductions,” Elsworth said. “Gord and Carolyn Martin of Cherrybrook Farms are supplying dried cherries and lettuce. We are using Nostrala cheese produced by the Harrises at Kootenay Alpine Cheese, as well as their organic beef and pork.”
She credited Erika Woker of Community Futures for helping them create a business plan, Creston Valley Farmer’s Market manager Jenn Comer for putting them in touch with local producers, and Vicki and Jim McDonald for endless amounts of advice and help.
“Looking back, it’s really hard to believe how many people have stepped in to help us get started,” she said.
The menu? Real Food Café entices customers with a tantalizing variety of recipes the couple has collected in their years of travel and work. Where else might one find authentic English fish and chips (yes, with mushy peas), Moroccan chicken tagine, gluten-free bread, vegetarian curry and meatballs cacciatore? Or barbecue salmon, real hamburgers and home-cut French fries, and sticky toffee pudding, all made with the best ingredients available, sourced locally whenever possible?
Real Food Café is open for lunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and dinner from 4:30-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A takeout menu is available. Call 250-428-8882 for reservations or to place a takeout order.