Victoria is home to a number of phenomenal producers of food and drink. Whether you’re looking for cheese, bread, wine, milk or even delicious desserts, there’s something for everyone from all over the island.
The question of course is finding these producers, especially now when we can barely travel outside our own cities. Which is where Niche, a grocerant soon to be nestled in Victoria’s Broadmead Village Shopping Centre, comes into play.
Niche is currently in its final stages of development, and is owned by Jami Wood and Ceri Barlow, two women who have been a part of the wine and food scene of Vancouver Island for years.
Neither just as a grocery store or a restaurant, Niche will be a combination of the two, and as Barlow puts it, “it’s not just a restaurant. It’s a hybrid business model.”
Which is something we absolutely need, especially now when regulations are constantly changing. Wood talks about how the covid restrictions that we’ve lived with for the past year have been built into the model of the grocerant, so that there are more opportunities even as rules shift. There will be a patio for outdoor dining and a grocery store with lots of food and local products to peruse and take home with you.
But aside from the basics, what exactly is a grocerant? And what will Niche, Victoria’s first ever grocerant, be like? According to Wood, upon entering you’ll find yourself in Niche’s beautiful retail store, which will be filled with products from local producers across the island. Products like frozen foods and premade meals from Vancouver Island producers, take-and-make meals ready to be heated up and enjoyed at home made by either in-house or by the families of Wood and Barlow, and a deli-case filled with fresh meats and fish and cheese will all be the staples of Niche’s retail and grocery store. For its other part, the restaurant will be equipped with an 8 person bar, a handful of indoor tables, and an open kitchen so that customers are free to chat with the people preparing their food. Even with current Covid restrictions, Niche hopes to seat 20 people outdoors on their patio, allowing people to try any of the meals that the restaurant will have to offer.
The inspiration for Niche is rooted in a love of food and community and everything the island has to offer. Wood talks of wanting to showcase the beautiful bounty of the island and making it accessible to the community. Because honestly, what’s better than good food? Sharing good food with the people around you. Barlow talks of bringing the producers of all this beautiful food and drink to the community, and educating people on what they can find on the island and locally.
The emphasis on the importance of the products being made locally cannot be overstated. It’s in the foundation of Niche and what the store and these two women hope to achieve. Covid restrictions have led to smaller businesses shutting down, and a higher dependence being placed on big box stores like Walmart and Thriftys. There’s a higher concern on where our food is coming from and our own food security, something Niche hopes to help by introducing its guests to the full bounty of local producers. Wood states that “it’s important to support the food scene through things like this pandemic and after to make sure it’s strong and that it can survive the next pandemic.”
Wood and Barlow hope to focus on the small producers, the farmers of the island, the innovators who have found ways to work around the climate and soil of the island to make sure that the food stays local. They want to showcase places like eco-greens and micro-greens, as well as the people who are creative and innovative in how they produce their food. And of course, as Barlow says, they can’t forget their favourites. Local restaurants like the Courtney Room and Dumpling Drop and Zambris will all be featured at Niche, as well as other personal favourites of the co-owners.
However, while the focus is on local products, Wood and Barlow both agree that the focus of Niche will be on the producers themselves, rather than the products. It’s about the people making the products, not just the products themselves. The focus is on the people who make our food, and showing the community how to support our local food producers.
Aside from locally made products, Niche also plans to hold live events once restrictions ease. Wood talks of live music in the restaurant performed by local musicians, and events featuring the chefs and farmers and winemakers responsible for the bounty that will be available at Niche. Barlow too, talks of events they hope to hold at Niche where guests will be able to meet the makers of all the delicious things they can find at the grocerant. Dinners with winemakers, meet-the-chef days, and other events where guests can talk with the local producers themselves are all on the agenda for Niche once Covid restrictions ease/lift.
But what of Covid? Although it was always built into the model for Niche, the pandemic has already left a mark on the soon-to-be-opened grocerant. Both co-owners have talked about the issues with time, and a lot more waiting than they anticipated as they work around new regulations and restrictions that have pressed down on the community. But despite this, they’re both optimistic that this has allowed them to work better and to be better prepared.
“It’s allowed us to be prepared for anything, to be a lot more diverse,” says Wood.
“Our business plan reflects how we’ve prepared,” adds Barlow, indicating that the co-owners are ready for anything that might come at them.
The excitement surrounding the impending opening of Niche is palpable as Wood and Barlow finish up final preparations before the grand opening of the grocerant. There’s excitement over the space of the location, and all the food that will fill the grocerant. There are options for meal planning, and for pre-made meals curated by the Niche restaurant and the families of the owners, as well as fresh produce that is island grown and ready for cooking. There is also excitement over showcasing our local beverage producers, going beyond the well known names of some of the local breweries and distilleries, and branching out and sharing this knowledge with the guests of Niche.
The hope and excitement around the grocerant’s opening from the owners is enough to make me excited, if only to see and try all the food and drink in the store.
As Barlow says, however, one of the biggest hopes of the store is that it will help to build a community, and both Wood and Barlow are excited to be able to build that community. To meet people and introduce them to the things they love, to have those things shared with others, to spread that love around and to bring people to Niche to enjoy everything wonderful that it has to offer.
Guests of Niche should not only expect to have an educational experience, but as well as a warm and nurturing welcome when they step foot into the store. Niche is here to spread food and drink to the people of Victoria, and to share the knowledge of all the different foods and drinks of the island. It’s meant to be a warm and friendly place; somewhere that’s built to grow a community steeped in a love of all things wonderful on the island.
Overall, Niche hopes to build a community and to be a place of gathering for producers and guests alike. It hopes to be a place of ever-growing support for the local producers of the island.
Niche is set to open some time in May. At this moment there’s no set date as Covid regulations in the province continue to change, but I recommend everyone keep an eye out for when Niche opens its doors to Victoria. It sounds like it’s going to be something that is well worth the wait.