Understanding the Dynamic Partnership That Drives Two Prolific Restaurateurs

Josh Pape and James Iranzad over beers at Bells and Whistles | Photo: Scout Magazine

The foundational partnerships that have helped shape our society tend to be fascinating. Think Lennon and McCartney, the Coen Brothers or even Wayne and Garth. Real or fictitious, the dynamic draws us in. This Scout series aims to shed some light on Vancouver’s most delicious partnerships. We want to hear their individual stories: how they came to align; what drives them crazy; what inspires them to continue on.

For the first iteration, Scout met up with the gents behind Gooseneck Hospitality. Think Bells and Whistles, Wildebeest, Bufala and Lucky Taco. The pair of restaurateurs who started it all are Josh Pape and James Iranzad. Both are veteran figures within the community and have plenty to share.

How did you guys meet?

Josh: We were more sort of around the industry for awhile, so we kind of knew of each other from the periphery. James frequented The Diamond quite a bit so we’d met a few times. It really worked out kind of serendipitously as we were both excited to start a new project and we both had time for a new project and…um…it was really because of Sam’s stag, right?…

James: No it was the poker game before Portland.

Josh: Oh yeah, right.

James: I went to a Canucks playoffs game in around 2011 with Andrew Morrison. After that we went out for drinks to Boneta, the original Boneta. It was a quiet night and we were just hanging out. It was early in the week. It was cold out and I remember going out for a smoke and I ran into Francis Reggio from Cork & Fin who was organizing a late night poker game and he asked me and Andrew if we wanted to go. We both said sure as it sounded fun. Start some poker game at 1am on a Tuesday…I mean, why not?

Anyways, there we went and Josh was at the table. We played until I think it was like 6am and by then I believe Josh and I were the last two at the table, so we got to talking. Anyways, a friend of ours a couple of other mutual friends were organizing a trip down to Portland to check out the city and go to a basketball game. Josh invited me along and that’s how it went. I think that was the first time we really hung out. We got kicked out of a few restaurants together and it was a great trip.

“We’re really respectful and patient with each other and subsequently we also like a lot of the same stuff so decisions become a lot easier because of that. It’s not usually a struggle. It’s not like one person likes bright colours and the other likes muted colours. We’re both drawn to the same visual aesthetic and we’re both good communicators. We listen to each other.”

From there was it more of just building a friendship?

James: It was building a friendship at first. Andrew Morrison broke his ankle a couple of weeks later after a hockey game and wasn’t able to play in a chef’s table golf tournament or something like that so he kind of played matchmaker for me and Josh to go and we had a great time. And uh…who else was there?

Josh: With Simon Kaulback and Ben Henthorne.

James: Was that the one with Simon and Ben?

Josh: Yeah.

James: Oh. So grimy. Haha.

Josh: And yeah…so that was one of those really big epic days where we just developed normal friendship stuff. We’d talk about work and shoot the shit about it and that’s when we both realized very quickly that we were both in the same position and wanted to do something about it. As we talked about what that might look like, I always say it was like a Step Brothers thing with us finishing each other’s sentences. We discussed how exactly it was gonna look like and what the food would be and what the drinks would be…the vibe…I mean, it was all the same. We wanted the exact same restaurant. It was pretty fun. Wildebeest came from that night.

James: We finished that game of golf and that idea of us talking got us wondering “where do we want to go?” We were really having a real struggle at the time of finding a new place. Obviously even then there were amazing restaurants and bars in the city but we wanted to go someplace new and exciting and we couldn’t think of it.

Josh: It was the kind of vibe we were after. We wanted it to be fun, but we also didn’t want it to be super casual. We wanted it to be uncompromising and elegant with great food and great drink and the whole. We wanted it to be a great experience but we didn’t want it to be fussy and high end and…well, there wasn’t anything really like that, you know? Gastown was doing really well, but it needed more.

James: L’Abattoir was open, Boneta was open, there was some good things happening.

Josh and James inside Wildebeest on the day they took possession of the space in Sept. 2011 | Photo: Scout Magazine

Wildebeest opened when?

James: Summer of 2012.

Josh: It was crazy how different it (Wildebeest) was then. I mean of how it was perceived at the beginning.

James: There was a lot more of a Scandinavian kind of approach to it.

David Gunawan was the opening chef, correct?

James: Yeah. I mean the whole very romantic idea of sourcing ingredients from people who put as much care into their work as we wanted to put into ours and using the entire animal and being really respectful. Those ideas are really the fundamental part of the genesis of Wildebeest and that hasn’t changed, but certainly in terms of how the menu looks, reads, eats…y’know that shifted and frankly it’s gotten better, I think.

Josh: That was never really our intention, either.

James: Yeah. David had just gotten back from Europe and he was just so taken with what he’d experienced in Copenhagen and the Netherlands and it was exciting for us to have him on board. I mean, we were late opening. The permits took forever.

Josh: We didn’t have a plan. Compared to how we do things now, we were just doing things as we went. Taping things on the floor and such. We’re much much better at it now. When you really go all the way back, it’s nuts. It’s fun to look at it. It was way more cowboy. It was all I knew. I’d come from the Chambar build (my first restaurant job) and seeing how Karri and Nico did their thing, and how we did things up at The Diamond with no plan, no money and paying as we went along with us trying to save money wherever we could. There was no idea for building codes and such. It was so different.

James: Wildebeest wasn’t that much different. We went in there with a six pack and a roll of masking tape and mapped out the restaurant right there.

So you hadn’t hired a design firm for Wildebeest?

Josh: No. We had beers with Craig Stanghetta (Ste. Marie Art + Design) in the very beginning to outline it but we all agreed we couldn’t afford him, but here’s what we’re thinking with a kitchen going over here and a bar going over here. It was a new and wild experience for the both us. It was a big project that we really wanted to make great.

Where are you two from? What’s your story?

Josh: Mine’s definitely less interesting as I’m born and raised in Vancouver. Born in East Van and then my family moved to the West Side when I was three or four. My parents split up when I was like 15 and we moved back to East Van. My mom still lives on the same block as Via Tevere and I live a five minute walk from there.

James: I was born in Iran and my family left there in 1979 when the revolution started and we moved to London, England. I lived in London until I was about eight and then we moved here. I went to Kerrisdale Elementary School and high school and the whole thing, so yeah…this is home for sure.

Were you always interested in hospitality? Was that something you always saw yourself getting into?

Josh: Ish. I mean food was a huge part of my life. My family talked a lot about food. Every meal was a big deal. Food was always central. But I didn’t get into hospitality until I was, like, 23 or so. And going back to school meant I would have to get a day job…I just liked the idea of bartending.

James: No. I went to University straight out of high school and studied Art History and Shakespearean studies and I never did anything like this. I got into this industry on a fluke, really. I hung out in this bar in Kits and I would go there after classes in University and after I graduated I went there one day to have beers and I saw a sign on their bathroom door saying they needed an office manager. I needed a job and yeah, I applied and got the job. I ended up managing the office and slowly learning the trade from there.

Josh: In the end, regardless of when you get in or how you start, some people just click more than others with hospitality. For myself, my family and I would go to restaurants and we’d be aware of the nature of the business and care. We paid attention to it, and from there – for myself personally – it came as a natural and easy fit.

Can you name a few places you’ve previously worked at?

Josh: I did a bartending class at the age of 22 and that didn’t do me any good. I got a job at a gay bar and stayed there for a short stint of two weeks. It was dead, so I realized that this wasn’t working. As luck would have it, I met Karri Schuermans (co-owner of Chambar) as she was having drinks with my sister one day at our house. My sister recommended to her that I could make us some drinks as I’d just taken a bartending course, which I happily obliged. From there she hired me as a bartender. It was a total fluke of nepotism as I’d never worked in a restaurant before, but there I was as one of the opening hires of Chambar. So anyways, I did the first year there and then I went to Australia where I got really lucky with some unbelievably high end training which helped build me into a real bartender. Before that I’d never really had any skill set and so that helped immensely in giving me the tools to become the bartender I ended up turning into. Until that trip overseas I was mostly getting by on passion, excitement and charm. But that original cocktail program we did was such a total disaster, but we got by. Looking back on it, oh man…it was such a mess! Seeing how bars are run now, it’s great to see how much we’ve evolved.

I always say one of the first things I learned about hospitality came from Michael Ziff (one of the managers I worked for at Chambar), who said that the customer wasn’t always right. He let off with this idea at one of our first staff meetings stating that “the customer was always right”, with all of us nodding in agreement. “The customer is a person just like us.” Coming from that I was like, “Whoa, ok!” And that was my introduction to proper hospitality and I just liked the lens and the way we looked at everything and the way that restaurant was built. The fact that they were trying to do something different than everyone else had done it actually levelled the playing field and showed that I didn’t know anything about hospitality because they built everything. I was a sponge and I was eager to learn so much. They’d say, “here’s how we’re going to do wine service” and I was like “okay” since I had no idea how to do it, because I’d never done it before.

In the end, looking back on it, I’m not sure they realized what they were starting and how great it was going to become. Well, Karri might have…Nico definitely did not. I remember in our first couple months, things are going really well and I remember Nico once saying “If we do a really big lunch and have a big night due to a concert or something, we might hit $10,000 for the day” and everybody was like “okay, we’ll see.” Ha! It’s funny to think of that. I think they’re doing alright.

James: I started off working at a couple of little bars in Kits, working as operations manager and then general manager at Elwoods and Nevermind, places that don’t exist anymore. And then I helped open a place called Hell’s Kitchen, which was on 4th Avenue.

Josh: You were a partner at that point?

James: More or less, yes. It was more of a ‘sweat equity’ type of arrangement as I didn’t put any money in.

Was that based off the Gordon Ramsay show?

James: Y’know, I’m not sure. I didn’t come up with name as one of the other guys had. This was like 2002 so I don’t even think his show had aired just yet. But yeah, my first place was Abigail’s Party in 2005 and in 2006 we opened The Flying Tiger. We had those until just after the Olympics. We eventually sold The Flying Tiger and by this point I was running Abigail’s on my own, with no partners. I did that for a couple of years as I’d just become a Dad and that was until Josh and I met.

You did Abigail’s Party by yourself for how many years?

James: It opened in 2005 and I bought out my partner in 2009, so I guess from then onwards. With that and with Josh and I becoming friends in 2010 we opened Wildebeest in 2012, Bufala in 2014. Then in 2015 we’d been wanting to do some new concept and I mean originally I’d thought about selling it (Abigail’s).

Josh: It was listed for awhile.

James: It was listed and I had an accepted offer but I didn’t feel great about it. I mean everything about that place is pretty great. It’s small, easy to manage and the lease is amazing, so we decided to just keep it realizing that it would be a great canvas for the two of us to do something new. So we eventually opened up Supermarine there, which lasted a year to the day. We loved that restaurant but we eventually realized that it wasn’t at all right for the neighbourhood.

Josh and James inside Lucky Taco just before launch in 2016 | Photo: Scout Magazine

Lucky’s a great spot.

James: Lucky’s amazing! Switching from Supermarine to Lucky was one of the better business decisions we’ve ever done. We’d been wanting to do a Mexican place anyway and with Supermarine not really hitting the nerve we wanted we just decided to make the switch.

Josh: It was always frustrating. We loved Supermarine but it just never took off the way we wanted it to.

Was it ever difficult adjusting to each other, especially with circumstances such as these? Navigating how to proceed, especially since Abigail’s Party had been yours alone for such awhile.

Josh: It was really easy and that was part of it. I mean, we get asked this quite often: “How do you make this work?” We’re both naturally comfortable with each other. We’re really respectful and patient with each other and subsequently we also like a lot of the same stuff so decisions become a lot easier because of that. It’s not usually a struggle. It’s not like one person likes bright colours and the other likes muted colours. We’re both drawn to the same visual aesthetic and we’re both good communicators. We listen to each other. So if we have to discuss something, we’ll always talk it through and debate the merits of what we’re dealing with but it usually doesn’t take too long to figure things out. In the end, if one of us prefers something then we’ll usually just run with it as it’s not often worth fighting over. Ultimately, I like working with partners. I mean, I have one with Mark Brand in The Diamond. I enjoy that process of collaboration and for me it was always that way. I like that I know first hand there’s plenty of things I do know and there are plenty more that I don’t and this is where we can share in our responsibilities as partners. So far it’s worked out very well. There was never any concern with our collaboration. If anything, bringing our worlds together was super exciting.

Do either of you have set roles?

James: Somewhat. But there’s plenty of overlap as well. That’s the whole collaboration aspect we’ve been talking about. That’s where the fun is. I was craving that after having been on my own for awhile. In my previous partner-relationship it was really negative and unhealthy. Once that was established with us, that overlap was really where the magic was for us. Originally Josh was taking more of a lead in the front of house stuff and I was doing more of the business end, but as we’ve matured as a team and a company our roles have bled to a point where we’re both comfortable doing whatever’s necessary.

Josh: None of what we do is black and white so you have to bleed roles together and share responsibilities and work together.

How do you find running four distinctly different establishments together?

James: It’s certainly been a conscious thing to make each one have its own identity. We’re creative and we want to try new things. You also have to control it a little, too. It can be taxing.

Josh: It also comes down to what our motivations are each time. I mean, if we were doing it purely to make money, what we’re doing is the worst way to be going about that. Restaurants in general make very little money so for us to be doing four different concepts on top of that is not the way you go about making money. If you just wanted to make money, doing a whole bunch of the same thing is how you should go about it. Chains are a good example of that, with buying power and systems being streamlined throughout, it makes making profit that much easier. But for us it’s fun to do something different at each space. Each project allows us to touch different inspirations.

Where do you see your company evolving over the next five or so years? Keep expanding? Different markets?

Josh: We think about everything. We really enjoy this. We’ve definitely looked a little further out. We cover a lot of ground right now. But we really enjoy being hands on. The idea of Toronto has come to us as many have relayed that it’s become a bountiful market, which is enticing. But all the same, we love this city and what we’ve been able to accomplish here.

Have you ever been approached to do something and turned it down?

James: Regularly. I mean, the pitch has usually come from a developer who’s looking to market their property better towards prospective buyers, which is understandable. However, that’s not enough of a reason for us to just open a restaurant. We want to be a part of something – the community and such – and because of this we’re very particular in the when, how and where we decide to open a business.

Josh: Opening a business is one thing, but for us we also try to look at what the community and area in question needs before we proceed. Each restaurant starts as a blank canvas and we move from there.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors?

James: Well, I don’t want to sound like an arrogant prick, but none really.

Josh: For me, everything around Chambar made a big impression. I learned a lot from Karri and Nico and the culture they cultivated. Chambar showed me how to run and build a restaurant that not only does its best to service its clientele but also in how they treat their employees, which for me is just as important. They spared no expense in showcasing how much they cared about their staff and we’ve definitely tried to emulate that in some way with how we want to take care of our own.

James: Echoing some of Josh’s sentiments here, what he’s saying is totally on point. The culture we’ve tried to create is definitely similar to what he experienced up at Chambar. We want our staff to feel like what they’re doing is a career. If you allow for them to care about it while also instilling that we are going to take care of them with safe and consistent work – with medical and dental – then the hope is that they’ll develop passion, which we’re excited to foster and help grow.

Do you to see each other everyday? Are your workdays spread to match or be opposite?

Josh: We maintain pretty similar schedules. It’s a job where you don’t punch a clock, but our days start similarly. We check the logouts from the night before; he checks the bank accounts; and then we try to cross paths throughout the day. We have meetings at each restaurant which keeps us tethered to what’s happening and we try to make time to go out at least once a week to see what’s going on in the city, which oftentimes turns into three or four such occasions. But overall, we remain in close contact much of the time.

Can you talk about your upcoming restaurant, the new Bufala in North Vancouver?

Josh: This will definitely be our biggest project to date. It will be much larger. Bells was 2900 square feet and this one will be 3300 square feet in size. It will also have a much larger patio. This one will be more of a full-service restaurant in that we’ll be offering a wider menu. Pasta and steaks is kinda what we’re looking to do, on top of what Bufala is known for. We’re taking the foundation of what we know works really well and building on that. We’re very excited for this one.

Well, thank you, gentlemen. This was great.

James: Thank you.

Josh: Yes, thank you. This was fun.

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