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 Scout column looks to gain insight into what makes some of Vancouver’s more interesting partnerships tick…
The women-owned Commercial Drive institution formerly known as Bandidas Taqueria recently changed its name to “The Burrow“. Though the signage has switched and the branding looks different (read on for an explanation), the menu and motivations of this East Side fixture remain consistent: to serve up nourishing, Mexican-inspired vegetarian and vegan fare, with a side of activism and an eye to affordability, community and sustainability. Meet the women who make it all happen: Aiyana Kane and Jackie Avery…
Take us back to the beginning: where and how did you meet?
Aiyana & Jackie: We met in an English class at UBC. On the final night of class, someone invited everyone out for drinks at the Koerner’s Pub, and we were the only two people who showed up – out of the whole class! We’ve been close friends ever since, and have done many projects together over the years – from putting on bike races and underground fashion shows in our younger years, to becoming teachers together, and then of course starting The Burrow. We built our own house basically from scratch (our two families share a duplex), and have had so many fun and meaningful events and fundraisers at the restaurant over the years.
How did Bandidas (now The Burrow) begin?
Aiyana: When we were working as teachers, we started dreaming of owning our own business. We often cooked together and put on dinner parties for friends. I started introducing Jackie to some of the dishes that I had grown up making and eating, and we both got excited about the idea of bringing this food to Vancouver. We started designing a menu and tweaking recipes – putting on big tasting events for friends. The parties that we catered were really the place where the dream started to get a life of its own. The community enthusiasm boosted our confidence in taking the leap.
In terms of the partnership, what are your official roles?
Jackie: HR and Facilities.
Aiyana: Food and Financial/Admin/Back End.
How about “unofficial” roles? (What are the things you do within the business that might land outside of your “official” title, but that each of you gravitates to/loves doing in the day-to-day operations?)
Jackie: Dining room look and feel, Social Media, Branding.
Aiyana: Projects/Events/Side Businesses – for example, spearheading our sister company, Brightside Foods (a frozen food line).
Your business is built on food, as well as values. Presumably, your commitment to community and equality is something that brought you together as both friends and business partners. Was there a specific issue or moment that kicked things off? If so, please lay out the scene for us.
Aiyana & Jackie: Our love of community certainly brought us together. Those early dinner parties where we would invite anyone who would come were the final ingredient that made this business dream tip into a reality. And through the years, we have derived so much satisfaction from hosting community events in the space. A stand-out is the huge multi-artist fundraiser that we hosted in protest when Donald Trump was elected. So many people came together to participate in that conversation. It was a meaningful way for us to connect with the community and provide an outlet for people during a time when many of us were feeling hopeless and helpless.
For many restaurateurs, just keeping the kitchen open and food on plates is challenging enough. To have social activism as such a large piece of The Burrow’s identity must take more energy, but also provide fuel. Integrating activism into business takes a lot of thought, effort and compromise, as well as internal dialogue. Is this something that you ‘teach’ to employees, or are you looking for specific signs when you hire?
Aiyana & Jackie: Values, purpose, and contribution are at the heart of why we exist. We have always been committed to operating a business that is a force for good in the world. These principles are definitely part of the conversation in our hiring process, and also a big part of our training. We train every employee on our core values from day one, and have an ongoing conversation within our teams about those values – in terms of how we serve our customers, how we treat each other, how we make decisions and handle conflict, and where we direct our resources. Those values are at the heart of our workplace culture at The Burrow.
Besides directly supporting The Burrow by being a customer, how else can the local community help further your cause?
Aiyana & Jackie: Right now with the convergence of rapid inflation and food shortages, our key challenge is finding ways to keep our prices down so that people can still afford to eat here and have access to delicious, hearty and nutrient-rich meals. We do this by designing dishes with creative use of ingredients and by adjusting our recipes responsively to changing quality, availability, and affordability of ingredients. Inflation and affordability are big, complex issues (especially in Vancouver). What is needed is for all of us to do our part, at whatever level we have influence. At The Burrow, we do this by inventing dishes like the $10 Penny Burrito or the $11 Willow Brunch Bowl. Even while we do need to raise prices on many menu dishes these days, we are committed to keeping at least a couple of very affordable dishes on our menu.
One of our challenges is getting this story out there – our deep commitment to affordability. We are grateful for every conversation and interview. We are grateful to Scout for helping us to tell our story.
Rebranding a business with such a recognizable name, good reputation, and long history in the community was a bold move. Why bother?
Aiyana & Jackie: Living in alignment with our core values is integral to how we do everything at The Burrow. One of our core values is social justice. When we realised that the word “bandido” has been used as a derogatory term for people of Latin American descent, we knew that the name, Bandidas, was not in alignment with the heart of our business. It was an incredibly inconvenient time for this change. And it was a very expensive project right at the end of a couple of hard pandemic years. And yet for us, making decisions that we feel proud of is very important.
What has been the most difficult thing about transitioning to The Burrow?
Aiyana & Jackie: Losing the brand recognition and widespread goodwill that we had built up over 13 years in business. Maybe naively, we didn’t realise how much we would be starting from scratch, in terms of brand recognition. It was at a time when the industry was already struggling. So many people around the city think that Bandidas went out of business. Or if they hear something about The Burrow, they have no idea that it’s the same restaurant that they’ve known about for all these years. We’re having to learn a lot of new skills to bring this new brand into visibility at a time of so much digital media – a realm that we honestly never had to learn very thoroughly.
Regardless of the name on the sign, your restaurant has made a name for itself as a community hub, inclusive safe space, and affordable, conscientious place to dine out in East Van. Setting such a high bar must mean high pressure and high rewards also. Can you give an example of each?
Aiyana & Jackie: Some of the biggest “challenges” have been with making internal decisions. For example, at one point we learned that we had been handling our overtime policy in a way that wasn’t true to the Employment Standards Act. Of course, there are several options as a business owner when you realise these kinds of things: ignore the new knowledge, fix it going forward, lie, etc. For us, the answer was clear. We knew we had to fix the problem by backing our team for the mistake. That was an expensive learning experience. But we know that every decision we make is part of how we set and lead a culture of honesty, integrity, and doing the right thing.
The rewards are plentiful. The ones that touch us most deeply are the staff who share with us – even years after working for us – how meaningful their time here was, and the learning that they brought forward into their own relationships, businesses and families.
Let’s get real: has there ever been a time that you considered throwing in the towel? If yes, can you tell us about the circumstances and elaborate on what stopped you?
Jackie: I remember, pre-pandemic, another restaurateur asking me if I ever thought about leaving the industry, and I told her with such confidence that I planned to own the restaurant until I retired. That confidence has been completely shaken. Many times during the pandemic I questioned if we should close down the restaurant. It has been three years of pivoting and worrying about money, staffing, food shortages, and inflation. The divisiveness and fearfulness through the pandemic was really hard to navigate. We are a restaurant where welcoming our community is a core value. Suddenly we were policing who was allowed to eat here or not (with the vaccine passport), and no matter what we did during this time, there were always people who felt betrayed by our policy (we were either “too relaxed” or “too strict”). So yes, there were many times over the past three years when I have wanted to throw in the towel. However, each time I have asked myself this question, I knew that it wasn’t the time to seriously consider exiting. If we can build back up and become financially viable as a business, I know this is what I am meant to do. The elements of running The Burrow and being in the industry bring me joy. I love the magic that happens in a room when good food and good people are brought together. I love the hustle, the creativity and all the quirky people in the industry.
Aiyana: January 2022 was the toughest month of our entire 14-year history. We had been struggling through COVID for almost two years. The staff and the community were burnt out by all that strain. The business was already financially unsteady, though propped up by government subsidies. In that month, the subsidies were coming to an end, the government implemented paid sick leave to be paid by employers, Omicron was hitting Vancouver very hard, our staff were getting sick at a rapid rate, and customers were going back into lock-down mode and not eating out. We never knew if we were going to have enough staff to open. And if we didn’t have enough staff, we still had to pay out sick pay wages. And if we did make it to open, we often had almost no customers. Quite a challenging convergence of things when I was already feeling quite run down. During that month, I took two weeks off and just walked, thought, slept, and spent time with my family. Really, I needed to realise that even if the restaurant were to go out of business, I would be OK. I would be sad, but I would be OK. That relieved a certain amount of the stress I had been experiencing, and allowed me to start to get some sparks of creativity, enthusiasm, gratitude, and gusto for the work. I truly love what I do here. And even though times have been challenging, it feels like we still have something to offer. I’m finding more joy in the work these days than I have in years.
You two have been business partners since 2009; friends, even longer. How have your relationships evolved over the years? At the core, how have they remained the same? Are the two relationships delineated in any way, or fully integrated/blurred?
Aiyana: Probably the biggest change is that these days there’s less time for our individual friendship outside of work. Nowadays, with us both having children, and the business of life, those times we get to spend together outside of the restaurant, just the two of us, are rare and precious. One of the coolest aspects of having such a close and involved relationship over all these years and stages of life, is that we’ve really grown together, through the ups and downs. We share a spiritual practice. It’s such an honour to get to share in each other’s inner work in that way, and to have those shared values and shared practices to lean on in our working relationship and business leadership.
And definitely for Jackie and I, the lines are pretty blurred throughout all aspects of our lives. We share a house – though we have our own suites. Our boys are growing up like brothers, running back and forth between our apartments. Our husbands help with errands, maintenance, and projects at the restaurant. We often chat about work over dinner at home. Or chat about life and family things during our meetings at work.
Jackie: I have always felt inspired by Aiyana. She is a person of deep integrity, and over the years I have been wowed by her ferocity to ask the hard questions, work incredibly hard, and do what is right; and by the depths of her generosity. The core of what has remained the same in our friendship is our commitment to sit down, be in the mess, and work things out. As Aiyana mentioned, what has changed is that we are in such a different life phase from when we met. We are no longer single and in our 20s. We have partners and kids, we own a restaurant, and we own and share a house together. We have seriously “adult-ed”, and there is less time for the carefree hangouts we used to have. At this point, Aiyana and her family have morphed out of friendship and into family.
How do you make each other laugh?
Aiyana & Jackie: Our biggest and most gut-wrenching fits of laughter have come from those moments when we simultaneously realise that everything is hopelessly falling apart. Laughing is a good coping mechanism. Otherwise, laughing is simply built into our relationship, and the restaurant industry provides a never-ending supply of funny situations to laugh at.
Almost a decade-and-a-half of being partners isn’t an insignificant amount of time. What are some of the highlights?
Aiyana & Jackie: The first big “wow” moment was getting the keys to our space. We walked in together and just stood in the middle of the room – daunted, but joyful – with such a sense of possibility. A true turning point in both of our lives.
A few years later, the 2014 BC teachers strike came at a time when we were just starting to get our feet under us as a business. A teacher came in to apply for a serving job because the teachers were receiving no strike pay. This was an issue that was close to our hearts, as we both care deeply about public education and have been teachers ourselves before opening the restaurant. We launched an initiative, Bandidas for BC Teachers, donating 100% of our profits every Wednesday to support the teachers. This was the first time that we truly realised we could use the business to influence change – to bring our community together, and support an important issue in our society. It was empowering and meaningful to participate in the conversation in this way. We had huge community engagement in these weekly fundraisers, and many other local businesses joined in on this effort.
When we made it to 10 years in business, two of our staff organised a huge anniversary party. We invited everyone in the community: friends, neighbours, customers, children whose parents had been eating here since before they were born (now old enough to be running around, hitting the piñata), staff who had worked for us over the years, friends who had helped with the original renovations… One family who had been regulars for years before they moved away to Bowen Island made a trip into town to be at the party. I’m not sure anything we’ve ever done has been so affirming as coming together with our wide community in that way. Our business would not be what it is without the support, enthusiasm, and engagement of this wide web of people. Truly moving for us.
What keeps you up at night? How do you destress?
Jackie: The pandemic has been the biggest stress by a long shot. If I didn’t have Aiyana, a meditation practice, strong community, supportive partner, and such resilient staff members, I would be in a stress induced health crisis. Besides meditating, moving my body helps me destress (riding my bike, walking, hiking, swimming, playing basketball, canoeing or just chasing around after my 10-year-old).
Aiyana: Throughout these past few years, I think the instability of the business has been the biggest stress – especially in terms of the responsibility I feel to our team, who depend on the wellness of the business for their own livelihoods. And to be honest, sometimes just the volume of email in my life these days overwhelms me! My meditation practice is a pretty central part of my life, and though it doesn’t make the difficulties and challenges of life go away, it helps me to have a deep sense of wellness and simplicity within all the things.
Finally, what was the last meal you shared together?
Aiyana & Jackie: One of the most common ways we share meals is by dropping off a pot of something hot to the other person’s apartment. Just yesterday, Jackie brought me a warm pot of red lentil dahl (a house favourite), just in time for dinner. Such a treat. So nourishing. In terms of actually sitting down together at a restaurant, I think the last time was when we brought one of our managers out for her birthday dinner at Kin Kao Song – a completely different kind of treat, getting to bask in the Song experience, taste the amazing dishes, and also share time together by just chatting and laughing.