Lisa Helps on The Food Industry of Victoria

A six-foot high painting of a bicycle. That’s the first thing you notice about Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps’ office, which jibes perfectly with her Fernwood-steeped reputation: community micro-lending, chickens in her backyard, and skateboarding to work during her time studying in San Francisco. “It was too far to walk but too close to ride, so I thought a skateboard was a good alternative.” There’s a photo op for you.

It’s only been a week or two since the City of Victoria announced it was lifting its twenty-four year ban on skateboarding in the downtown area. Though Helps was quick to give credit to other council members who had started drafting the change before the mayoral election, it’s a good example of how city council is getting more stuff done under the stewardship of Victoria’s second-ever female mayor. Whether it’s taking the city’s contractors to task over the blue bridge, instituting two-hour community drop-ins at City Hall, or buying the Wharf St. Visitor Centre, Helps and her council have been working to live up to her election promise of less waste and more progress in municipal development.

Read on for Helps’ thoughts on the growth of Victoria’s food, beer, and coffee scenes, shared between bites of her Molé Huevos Rancheros (her usual lunch rotation features Molé, Shizen Sushi, and the Victoria Public Market.)

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Eat questions in bold, Lisa’s responses in quotes.


How big a part does food play in your life? Has your family always cooked?

“Not so much a tradition of family cooking but a tradition of family food growing. My dad had a backyard vegetable garden, I’ve got chickens that lay fresh eggs, and every year we add more square footage to our garden… it plays a huge role in my sanity.”

So you don’t have a tradition of cooking in your family? Do you consider yourself a cook?

“Oh yeah. Tradition in my family, not really, but my grandmother was a good cook. I have Greek blood, so I grew up eating a lot of Greek food, but I was a tree planting cook for six years, and it’s not like macaroni and cheese and hot dogs… it’s pretty gourmet food. You get word that a cook in another camp made calzones for her hundred planters, you’re like, well we’re gonna make calzones AND something, you know? I baked 12 loaves of fresh bread a day, baked 400 cookies, so I love cooking, I love food.”

As a gardener, what’s your motivation for growing at home?

“For me, growing my own food, obviously I know where it comes from but I spend so much time in my head, so much time in public, so much time looking all, sort of mayor-like that I really like to just get my hands in the earth and get dirty and be outside, turn over that shovel where a whole bunch of worms are.”

With amalgamation are you hoping to bring Victorians closer to the farms around them?

“Not so much with amalgamation, but I think part of what we need to do as a city is support density and height so we’re not spilling out onto the farmlands with development. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that there’s food-growing lands out around the city and I think Victoria’s role is welcoming the population here so we’re not building on farmland.”

You’ve spoken about how the food, beer and coffee scenes have been growing really rapidly – do you have any numbers or even a report on how well that industry is doing?

“It’s more of a feeling and it’s more anecdotal than anything… When tourists come to Victoria, to the info centre, what they ask is, what are the locals doing? What are the locals eating? And that sector is growing in terms of tourism as well.”

It’s good you brought that up – there’s been some conversations about the downtown core, that whole stretch of Government Street is tourist-focused, they don’t really cater to the locals at all. Do you think that’s an important part of the tourism industry here?

“Mhm! I guarantee you, if those vacancies on Government filled up with local coffee shops, local food, local beer, and actually, I’ve never thought about this before so thanks for your question… I guarantee they would be thriving. Look at The Drake, look at The Duke, the places that are opening, people are flocking to them. Look at Habit Coffee, look at how even on the strip of Blanshard and Fort where it’s Chorizo and Co., Fish Hook, turn the corner and it’s La Taquisa and Be Love. It’s thriving there.”

Why do you think there’s such a difference between that and Government? There’s only a two-block difference…

IMG_8017“I think it’s the nature of what’s there. Everybody needs to eat, not everybody needs to drink beer but most people need a cup of coffee and people want to have an authentic experience. Later when I have time, maybe even this afternoon, I’m gonna call up some of the Government Street landlords and say hey, you know, a guy from Eat Magazine was here, he asked me this question and you could be responsible for solving the problem!”

Sure! I mean a lot of the vacancies downtown, there’s been a proposal to offer tax breaks to the landlords so they can lower rents locally, and I think the concern of some folks is that it runs the risk of enabling landlords to leave their places unrented for longer while they hold out for a higher income client.

“Yeah, that’s possible. That’s just the nature of the media. Andrew Duffy called and asked me what did I think about Government Street and I said a whole series of different ideas and thoughts and then that’s the headline, ‘Mayor proposes tax cuts for landlords’. I think no problem can be solved with only one solution, particularly something complex like downtown vacancies, but I do think there’s no market saturation in good local food, coffee, or beer. In fact, there are some guys that came to my community drop-in a couple weeks ago and they’re proposing to open a brewery and tasting room at the corner of Broad and Yates where the old A&B Sound is.”

So what about a counter proposal, a cost for having your place be vacant, or even giving a grant or tax breaks to small businesses considering moving in there?

“Well, we’re very limited as municipalities as to what we can do. We can’t treat any class of business or property owner differently. According to provincial legislation we can’t say, if you have a vacancy we’re going to charge you more property tax. We don’t have the legislative ability to do that, and same thing with small businesses, I would love to be able to give some incentive to small businesses for filling vacancies, we can’t do that. But what we can do is a hell of a better job being good partners to small business. One of the things I’d like to see, I’ve been calling it an Economic Development Office but someone suggested it might be better to call it an Office of Small Business Services. If you’re a small businessperson and you want to open your business, you come to City Hall, you go to the Office of Small Business Services, and our first question is when do you want to be open and how can we help? Rather than the other way around, do this, this, this and this and then you can open your business. So we’d provide support rather than money.”

Legislatively then, what’s the difference between offering a tax break to landlords in an area to reduce rents and giving special treatment to a small business?

“That’s a great question. According to the community charter, the municipalities have the ability… We can’t say this property owner gets a tax break for his or her building; we have to designate an area. It’s called an Economic Revitalization Exemption, so it’s geographical area and any buildings in that area can receive the exemption. That’s one of two exceptions, we can do it for heritage buildings as well.”

Could you put limitations on it, say if this property is rented within a certain period you qualify?

“I don’t know, maybe, that’d be good. But yeah, I have to look into it more, my guess is probably not although I know this kind of thing works because Townline, the developer of the Hudson Market Building over there, they got a five year heritage tax exemption and so that’s how the public market was able to tenant the space and that’s how Sam [Jones] was able to open a second 2% Jazz. Somehow that tax exemption got passed on to tenants, but there’s also nothing that makes the landlord have to pass it on to the tenants.”


Just going back to tourism for a second, you see a lot of posters around town from Washington state, things like that, come to the casino, have a beer tasting, things like that, are there any plans to do something similar with Tourism Victoria towards Alberta, the States?

“Tourism Victoria is doing an amazing job, and they’ve recently partnered up with the Victoria Conference Centre to kind of co-market Victoria. One of the problems in this town is that we’ve all been singing from different song sheets for the past many years, some people are singing Christmas carols, some people are singing hymns, some people are singing jazz, some people are signing opera, we’re all telling this different story. So there’s a real concerted effort this year to figure out what song we’re singing and to sing that song really loud. In a couple of weeks I’m going to Seattle for the day with Tourism Victoria and the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, do a tour down there, meet the mayor, go see the cruise industry, start to build those bridges a little more.”

Recently we’ve had the Dine Around events that are done through Tourism Victoria, and some restaurants say that the fees to enter it are too high and there are a lot of stipulations, you have to put a bunch of money up front to participate.

“Oh is that right? I didn’t realize that. Do restaurants feel like the Dine Around is worth it or not worth it?”

There are certainly some places that do it every year that feel it’s worth it, kind of staples of the tour. But there are definitely restaurant owners who are like, it’s not worth it for me, I can offer a fixed price menu at the same time, and I don’t feel like the promotion is worth the amount of investment required. So that would be one avenue where you could bring more local restaurants into that system, because the more that they stand together and promote themselves as a group I think is good.


You quoted Ed Whittaker last year saying that workers are most important, so I’m curious, especially with restaurant workers, unionization is kind of this ongoing conversation I think. Do you have any opinions on that?

“On unionization of restaurant workers, no I don’t really have an opinion; when I said I think the workers are most important, what I mean is that I as mayor or even our managers, they don’t know the front lines, and if we want innovation and we want creativity we need to ask the front lines. I think historically unions have served a very strong purpose and created rights for people that they wouldn’t otherwise have… I think unions like every other institution need to come into the 21st century. I’m not familiar enough with the restaurant industry’s attempts to unionize to say anything more than that.”

There was a situation a few years ago with Duncan Morrison at the Wharfside with a bunch of staff claiming that they weren’t paid, the business closed down, and he said he was going to leave Victoria and stuff like that — are there any protections the city could offer for employees like that where someone runs out on them?

“Mmm, that’s not the city’s role.”

Well, people have a tendency to blame the city…

“I know, that’s the thing, everyone wants the city to be everything to all people, and that’s why I think historically we haven’t necessarily been able to do a great job…. You have to choose your hedgehog concept and be really good at the things you’re good at, and I think if you take the time to read through the city’s strategic plan we’ve got a really solid, very focused four year plan and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

In the past [former Mayor] Dean Fortin was seen attending a lot of events like Beer Week, food festivals etc. do you have plans to attend any of those events in the future?

“Sure, you know, attending events is awesome, but creating the infrastructure at City Hall to make those events happen, to make more events happen, to make more businesses open, I really see that as my role. Sure I’ll go to events, I love going to events, but it’s not enough to just show up. It’s really important to me that I and council and staff create an environment at City Hall that fosters and supports a culture of yes, a culture of partnership and collaboration. So sure, I’ll go out to events, but my main focus is to stay focused strategically on how we can make the city a better partner.”

I think for many people in my generation it can be tough to find a job as a millennial. There are industries here, some of them are very competitive, there aren’t a lot of job openings all the time, people are kind of fighting for position, are you worried about there being a brain drain from Victoria?

“Yeah I guess I am worried about it, 75% of students at UVic are from elsewhere, and probably most of them would like to stay here when they graduate, so other than sewage which is like being forced on me as my number one priority…”


“Yeah, my number one priority is creating prosperity for economic development, and once our strategic plan has passed I’m going to strike an economic development task force to get information from key players in various sectors of the economy to say okay, what can city hall do to support business and small business? And that’s where the Economic Development Office or the Small Business Services or whatever will spring up. And then once I’m confident that when someone walks into City Hall to relocate their business to Victoria, open a business, grow a business, that our city staff are on it, then I can start getting on a plane and going to San Francisco, to LA, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and say, hey, why don’t you relocate to Victoria, or what about a second office in Victoria, here’s what we can offer. And in all of those cities I mentioned, cost of living and Victoria cost of housing, yes it’s expensive but not as expensive as those places. So after four years of me in office I would really like to see your generation and UVic grads and other millennials feel like there are a lot of jobs here that people would want.”

So wrapping up because this is close to our time, what’s your dream for the local food and beer scene in Victoria, what’s your ultimate vision?

“That people around say, [slams the desk] oh my god, have you been to Victoria yet? You gotta go check out the local food scene, the local beer scene, the local coffee scene. It’s interesting, when I didn’t swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen when I was sworn in, I got interviewed by people across the country and they would say, ‘oh, how could you dare not swear to the Queen when Victoria is the home of high tea and the Empress Hotel!’ I said, wrong. I said that’s an old story, our story now is high tech, our story is food, beer, coffee, and people went ‘wow.’ So I think when we start hearing that story reflected back to us… That’s what my dream is, that out there in the world people are murmuring hey, got to go check out the food scene in Victoria. And by food, I mean coffee and beer too!”

Editor’s Note: Thanks for taking the time to read this, and thanks to Lisa Helps and her assistant for letting us come and meet you!

Written By:

Vancouver-born photographer, writer and designer Sol Kauffman has had his hands dirty in restaurant kitchens for years, washing dishes and slinging pizzas. In 2008 he moved to Victoria to pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at UVic ...

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