While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this series of interviews looks to gain insight into what makes some of British Columbia’s more interesting partnerships tick.
Let’s jump right in: Where did you meet?
Justin: The year is still debatable, but it was probably 2003. We met while working at Feenie’s restaurant; Bryan was the new line cook –
Justin: Right! And I was the bartender. It was my second bartending job. We were kids.
And when did the idea for Juke come into play?
Justin: It started with me. I’d been travelling. I remember visiting an Indian restaurant with proper service on the main floor and a more casual space above. The second space was young and vibrant. Somehow they made it work. Juke’s nothing like that Indian restaurant, but something in that restaurant’s design and flow clicked with me, and I started dreaming.
At the time, it felt like everyone was doing big ‘special occasion’ restaurants, but I wanted something small and super fun. I also wanted somewhere that, on cold rainy nights when business is slow because no one wants to go out, we could open up a portion of our business for take-out (this was before third-party delivery services were a thing). I didn’t know how to make it work, but I knew that I was on to something. My partner, Sameena, was supportive, but even then she made it clear that if I was going to do it, Bryan was the only person I was going to do it with. She gave me no options.
Why did she single out Bryan?
Justin: Bryan and I have a really good shorthand. We’d worked together on and off for so many years (and in-between, we’d always kept in touch as friends). Sameena knew that our passions were very similar. I was very enthusiastic about everything to do with drinks, and he was very passionate about food. It seems obvious and straightforward, but it doesn’t always happen that two people hit that same level of commitment. We were just on the same wavelength, and she saw that. All I had to do was figure out how to convince a chef from Hawksworth to come and make fried chicken.
How’d you do that?
Justin: I went in with a pretty straightforward pitch. I said, “Look, I’m gonna take off my suit, and you take off your chef whites, but we’re gonna make the same level of food, and deliver it with the same level of service – and we’re going to have some fun.”
And it worked. Had you always wanted it to be a partnership with someone rather than to go solo?
Justin: Well, for me, my experience immediately leading up to Juke was working under Karri and Nico Schuermans at Chambar, as well as with Robbie Kane at Medina – two very different scenarios. On the one hand, Karri and Nico were a married couple who worked as a team: one person ran the kitchen (Nico), while the other person marketed the business (Karri). On the other hand, Robbie at Medina was the only owner; so when the chef called in sick, Robbie was in the kitchen, and when he was missing a server, he was on the floor. I was watching both of these scenarios, and I was fully prepared to give up 50% of the business in order to be able to sleep at night knowing that I had a partner who was in the business, rather than either going it alone or working with someone who wasn’t as deeply invested as I was. I just knew that Bryan was that person.
Bryan: I wanted to work with somebody whose skill set complemented mine.
Justin: Some businesses don’t need multiple partners, and some don’t need equal ownership. But I think we knew very early on that we complemented one another and that we were equals. Partnership always made sense.
Beyond the obvious (one of you has a background in the kitchen, and the other has front-of-house experience), how do you complement each other?
Bryan: Broadly, Justin handles marketing and front-of-house, and I deal with the kitchen. But every decision is 100% run through both of us.
Justin: We have never officially defined our roles – probably a product of green ownership.
Bryan: Yeah, it happened organically.
Justin: I have a lot of ideas, and Bryan is very structural.
Technically, it’s not just the two of you, though?
Bryan: No, Cord Jarvie is a silent partner. He’s not involved in the day-to-day – he doesn’t even live in Vancouver anymore (he’s up in Powell River and just opened Supercharger Pizza) – but he’s still there in the background.
Justin: When we started out, Cord was instrumental in getting Bryan and I on the same page.
Bryan: Plus, Cord had opened a whack of restaurants, so he helped us with all the pre-build logistics, and he got us on our feet in the first few months. After that, he took a step back. We rely on him as a sounding board when we’re debating moves.
What are some of the moves that you debate?
Bryan: Pricing! We spend a lot of time talking about pricing. We want to focus on keeping prices as low as possible, but finding the sweet spot of reality for a strong business and affordability for the customer is always a challenge.
Justin: I agree. Neither of us ever wants to increase prices, and we both know we have to, so we go back and forth looking for the middle.
Bryan: Especially lately – over the last year and a half, costs have increased so much!
Justin: One of the reasons we wanted to do take-out instead of seating was because we could see apartments were getting smaller and people were cooking at home less, but big restaurants were starting to look like places to go out for special events and we wanted the opposite. We wanted a place you could go to twice a week and enjoy. That means being affordable. We work hard at remaining affordable.
Is there anything that you disagree on?
Justin: That’s a hard one. We agree on pretty much everything.
What about outside of work?
Justin: Bryan will never agree that the Raptors are any good.
Bryan: That’s true.
“We can teach you to do something in the kitchen, but we can’t teach you to give a fuck.”
What surprising talent does each of you bring to the partnership (something that might not appear on a resume but has come in handy regarding your working relationship at Juke?)
Justin: I didn’t know that Bryan was that good at sauces. I mean, every sauce he makes blows my mind. This guy is the king of sauces. I think the talent behind that is that he’s inquisitive, curious, and always trying and testing.
Bryan: Justin is a really good writer. He helps me clarify my thoughts. He’s such a great person to bounce ideas off of.
Justin: I hate revision but, as we’ve already discussed, Bryan is very systematic and structured. I send him things I’ve written, and he’ll make notes. He’ll slow me down. He’ll bring me in. That’s a nice place to get to. Chef-wise, Bryan is incredibly humble and incredibly good. I don’t think he really got a lot of the shine that he should have – but he’s at least in the top three chefs that I’ve worked with over my career. And I might not say this to him too often, but he is incredibly gifted. I say that, not because he’s my business partner, but because he’s very gifted. That would be enough, but compliments to Bryan – because not every chef is a businessman, and he’s done incredibly well at adapting to what the business needed rather than what he needed or just what the kitchen needed. We’re very opposite in many ways, but that strengthens the business. What I know is that he’ll go the distance. He’s never told me, “I’m too tired,” or, “I’ll do it in a couple of weeks.” I trust him to get it done, whatever it is.
Bryan: Yeah, trust is big. I trust Justin. You have to be constantly communicating in a business partnership. We do that. We can be completely honest with one another. He knows that I’m never going to say anything hurtful. And I like him, he’s a good person.
Justin: Bryan and I work on the business together every day. Sometimes we go to lunch together offsite and talk things through. Part of why the equation works is because we just genuinely like each other.
Bryan: Yeah, we’re friends who respect each other’s lives. Justin had two young kids at the beginning of our business partnership, and now I have a kid. And if you know what’s happening with the other person at home, you have much more compassion at work. You can understand where they’re coming from. Right now, there’s a lot of talk about work-life balance and burnout. We give each other space to work at our ‘life’ schedules, but we are also always available for the business.
Justin: Bryan knows that if I’m not here, he can always contact me and it doesn’t bother me. But, because we have different responsibilities right now, I have the kids in the morning, so I’m not at work but I’m working later at night because Bryan has a baby and he has to be at home at night. Basically, we allow each other ‘off’ time.
Bryan: There is never really any ‘off’ time because it’s worked into our flow. We always know we can contact one another.
Both of you come from ‘fine dining’ backgrounds (Justin at Chambar/Jean George; Bryan at Hawksworth), yet you chose to open a casual counter service restaurant – why the 180 on service and cooking style? Or, is it a 180?
Justin: I guess it might look like a 180, but it isn’t really. The way we run our kitchen, the way we source our food, the way Sabrine (Dhaliwal) runs The Chickadee Room – everything is based on what we learned through the industry.
Bryan: When we first opened, no one knew us, and no one wanted to give up their job to work with us, so we opened with a skeleton crew. I had to go to the open market for staff, but we weren’t a known entity at the time, and no one applied. I had to get friends to come in and cook. Friends who had cooked at some of the best kitchens in the city, even the world. Friends got us off the ground.
Justin: That’s true; Bryan had two or three stages from Noma in our kitchen for the first six months. And we had Jane Copeland (ex- El Buli, Chambar now Lift Bakery). We probably had one of the best kitchens in the city in the first six months, and all of those who came to help gave us input from their experiences. They helped us tweak recipes, figured out better layout and flow, and shared from their rich backgrounds. We benefited hugely. That created a strong foundation.
Justin: Big picture, getting to where we are now would be comparable to an athlete in competition or a musician on stage – it takes a lot of practice to get to that point. And if you don’t put in the time to train, you won’t get to the stage. If we had just opened without having logged all the hours we had in our previous jobs, we wouldn’t be as good as we are, or as proud of what we have accomplished.
What principles or habits from your time in these more ‘formal’ restaurant environments worked their way into the culture or operations at Juke?
Bryan: I’m committed to a fine dining level of cleanliness and go hard on following a checklist. From the start we had these standards, and from the start, we explained to our staff that we needed to meet these standards. When I’m working on the business and I find myself considering how I can streamline our process or make our finished product even better, I look at it through the lens of what I learned in fine dining.
Justin: It’s the same for me. I draw on my years of experience in fine dining when I’m looking at customer service, but it’s a lot different. The hardest thing about counter service (aside from staffing) is ensuring we deliver consistent, high-quality service. It’s all about taking care of the customer and enhancing their experience so that they come back. How do you do that in ten seconds? We think about that a lot. It keeps us up at night. On a personal level, I can’t ‘not’ greet people. And, drop your plate on left and clear from the right – you just do it.
Do you miss anything about the higher end?
Justin: I think both Bryan and I miss elements of it. Super high-end execution and crafting an evening – we miss that.
Are there any significant perceptions of what you thought business would be like before you started Juke that differ compared to where you are now?
Bryan: No one told us we’d be paying this much in taxes! Taxes are so high!
Justin: It takes time. It’s like being a Formula One driver: when you’re in a race car for the first time, your heart is racing, and you’re just holding onto the wheel, trying to survive. But once you get better and begin to understand how things happen by working through them, you can calm down and navigate that space differently.
So you’re not reacting as much as you are steering these days?
Justin: Exactly. There’s no need to panic. You have to stay calm and steer. More than that, panic is the wrong place to make decisions from. You own it rather than let it own you.
How did you recognize there’s no need to panic?
Justin: When I worked at Market by Jean Georges, Jean Georges would fly into Vancouver on the redeye arriving at 6am, and by noon on the same day we had a management meeting. He handled it almost like a drill sergeant (in a good way). He’d just calmly sit us down and run through a list by saying, “Fix this” or, “Adjust that” – and that is what we did. It worked. It was calm and ordered. In other experiences that I’ve had, I’ve seen people walk into the restaurant with a volatile energy exclaiming, “Oh my God, we have to do ‘this’ immediately!” and, “We have to do ‘that’ right now!” And under those circumstances, hasty decisions and mistakes are made.
How have you adapted your business over time?
Bryan: I’m a lot more hands-on with my staff than ever before, I try to touch everyone when I come into work.
Justin: [Laughing] Not that way! He doesn’t mean it that way!
Bryan: [Laughs] Right. I mean I check in with people. I ask them how they’re doing. I want to know.
Justin: Much better – and more accurate. I would say that is true for me as well, I am on the floor less, but I check in with my staff more.
Bryan: When you first open a restaurant, you think everything has to be perfect. And you stress yourself out to do it. But you have to have faith in yourself. Even at Hawksworth, I had a hard time with this. I expected everybody around me to work as hard as I was working. But this is my business. Nobody will work as hard as I will (well, Justin will). It’s about maturing into leadership.
So you’re more hands-on by connecting with people personally, but more hands-off with operations? (And zero hands actually touching people…)
Bryan: Yes. I think you have to be a little bit hands-off for your restaurant to grow beyond you. I trust my staff – and that’s in part because we hire for personality.
Justin: Yeah, we’re hiring for soft skills.
Bryan: We can teach you to do something in the kitchen, but we can’t teach you to give a fuck.
Even when a partnership is a solid as this one, running a restaurant is a challenge. Hustle down to Juke and show this team some love soon.