Chupito Cocteleria is a cocktail-forward Mexican restaurant in downtown Vancouver. Guests access the restaurant via the alley behind La Taqueria’s 322 W. Hastings Street location (on Hastings between Homer and Richards, just off of Victory Square).
Chupito is a fun, inclusive and inviting 100% outdoor space with a gravel floor, zero-waste cocktail program, and shipping container for a bar. Owned by Marcelo Ramirez (La Taqueria) and Tara Davies (first-time owner), Chupito’s success story is unique: An empty lot in the DTES transformed into a thriving business that attracts locals and visitors alike with its great food and award-winning service. Plus, they make some of the best cocktails in the city.
If you’ve been, you’ve probably had a good time. I know I have; and so have The Michelin Guide team, who gave Chupito a spot on their coveted Michelin Guide to Vancouver list of recommended restaurants (the judges of Vancouver Magazine also agree, having recently awarded Davies the Premier Crew Award in recognition of her exceptional service at Chupito). This place is on the map, and doing something cool. Too bad you can’t go…
Why not? Because the City of Vancouver won’t get off their asses to renew Chupito’s permits. Which means that, not only can’t you take your out-of-town pals there to prove Vancouver CAN be fun and inviting, but also that the restaurant – which primarily relies on a five-month fair-weather window for revenue – is losing essential income weekly.
We recently met up with co-owner Tara Davies to get a first-hand rundown of the situation – beginning with Chupito’s conception through to the present day debacle. We’ve done our best to recount her detailed explanation in our condensed timeline version below:
“Chupito started when Covid started – that’s how it was birthed. We heard the city’s cries for outdoor spaces and applied for a temporary patio permit to provide one. We got the permit and opened (on private land with the existing structure) under the temporary patio permit in June 2021. To this day, the only thing that has changed since we got that permit is the occasional re-arrangement of the tables.
“During the first season, The City of Vancouver offered patio permit extensions on private property through the winter. We signed up for it, and we were accepted. It was great.”
“November of 2021 was when we first inquired about making Chupito a permanent patio, which would change our licensing. The city told us that there was no need. They advised us that it would be better to extend our temporary patio permit because applying for a permanent licence would require us to go through a development permit process and a building permit process, making it quite challenging to continue to operate. As a first-time business owner, I appreciated the guidance and followed their advice.
“We put up a tent to offer covered service (a necessity in Vancouver through the winter). The COV asked us to take it down, and we complied. At that point, without any cover to protect guests from rain, it made sense that Chupito would remain a seasonal patio using our temporary patio permit.
“When the next season of temporary patio licensing applications opened, we immediately applied with the exact drawings and the same structure as the year before, and we got the permit.”
“We opened and the season went very well. We really integrated with the community, and our staff was happy. That was the time we started to thrive.”
“We were awarded the Bib Gourmand Award from Michelin”
“In compliance with the new City Of Vancouver regulations, we closed for the winter…”
“Started inquires into the permit application process for the third season .”
“In March 2023, we were denied a permit. Same business, same existing structure, same application papers; nothing had changed since year one, but now we were told that we could not apply for renewals on private property. At this point, the city had come to the space and seen the shipping container on more than one occasion and had seen it in operation. After Michelin, it was also very widely publicized. It had always been part of our business and our identity. Because it had never been mentioned, our assumption was that the city was fine with it. But in March of 2023, we were denied based on that container. They told us they now considered the shipping container a permanent structure and that the only way we could have a temporary patio permit was if we rolled it out of the space every night to revert it to an empty lot with one parking stall every day.
“We could not for the life of us understand the logic. From what the City told us, we had operated legally and compliant with a Temporary Expedited Patio Program (TEPP) for two years. Nothing about our business has changed.”
“Because of our inquiries for a permanent patio back in 2021, we knew we were in for a more complicated process if we hoped for a permanent licence, so we asked many questions, fought the decision and got an architect involved. In the end, we were given no other option but to apply for a permanent patio license.”
- – We applied for parking relaxation for a single stall (we had to go back years to find drawings that even showed a parking spot on this empty lot off of an alley existed).
– Got three different architectural drawings made (not cheap)
– Paid a $4000 fee to The City of Vancouver
– Rewrote all of the letters that we had previously been approved with.
– Arranged for a 4×6 foot development permit sign (which obscures the entire front of our only currently functioning operation – La Taqueria) to be printed and hung it at our own cost.
“On April 26th, we were told we could likely open by the end of June. It is now July and we are still sitting on our hands. We have now lost months of record heat when Vancouverites wanted to be outside on patios. On top of that, my staff (originally 10, now only four) – who have been with me since we opened the project two years ago – were counting on working in June…and they are struggling to meet basic living expenses in this expensive city. The real kicker? Now that our space is is sitting empty, it is being vandalized – we’ve had paint poured everywhere, our first aid kit was stolen, and our outdoor heaters have been vandalized. Nothing like this happened when we were in operation.”
“We understood that we would need to display our Development Permit sign for 21 days, and then we would get word from the city about what would happen next. I thought we would be approved because we were going through all the motions, doing everything they asked us to do (and paying a hefty fee along the way). But there was still no word from the city by June 9th (more than 30 business days after we had the sign). So we sent another email. At that time we were told that our application now had to run through other departments, and then we could talk about the decision.
“We are now being told that our application wasn’t fully completed until the end of April, and…it could potentially take [approximately 14 weeks] until the end of August to obtain a permit (another prime patio month gone). When challenged on this, the City of Vancouver staff said they they were doing us a “favour” to speed it along and try and help get us open by mid-July. From our perspective, “favour” is the absolute furthest word to use in this situation.”
“Because the City of Vancouver seemingly responds differently to lawyers and third party representatives in a much different tone than they do to small business owners, we hire Rising Tide Consultants and legal council speak on our behalf.”
The patio closure and Chupito’s inability to utilize the full capacity of the establishment is squeezing it financially, pushing the restaurant into an alarming economic crisis. In an industry with notoriously thin margins, this loss of revenue not only hurts Chupito, it also impacts La Taqueria, and is causing a negative economic ripple effect with staff and suppliers. As Davies explains: “Without La Taqueria running in the adjoining space, I would personally be bankrupt already. On top of the fees to the City of Vancouver, we have been paying an increased rent for the Chupito space with no sales. Why is the city making it so hard, and to what end?”
As Davies explains: “This rectangular gravel lot does nothing, and it’s off of an alley that could use a little bit of activity. What do we want for Vancouver, an empty lot in an alley on the DTES or a healthy business, the integration of communities, and people walking through the alley bringing it to life (as well as safety)? People are dying in those alleys. At least when Chupito was open, we were out there, seeing people and talking to them. Giving them water when they needed it. Calling ambulances.”
To recap: Chupito’s location was an empty lot, before female entrepreneur (Tara Davies) and an established business owner (Marcelo Ramirez) lovingly and responsibly turned it into a thriving business – to such success that it landed on The Michelin Guide (which, in turn, boosts the local economy by promoting restaurants, increasing tourism, and creating jobs, thus stimulating economic growth and development). Despite its success, Chupito can not get a temporary patio permit, even though they have not changed their operation AT ALL since it was granted its original permit at opening. This is because the City (now) considers their shipping container bar a ‘permanent structure’ which requires a completely different permit (a very lengthy and expensive process that is costing them valuable summer months of revenue). The restaurant could only qualify for a temporary patio permit if they rolled the shipping container out of the space at the end of every night, in order to revert it to an empty lot with one parking stall every day. Not only is this a ridiculous suggestion, but the building which Chupito calls “home” is slated for demolition in December 2024 – the entire situation could hardly be any more temporary.
Yes, we need rules, but come on – get out of your own way, Vancouver! And if you can’t do that, at least get out of the way of small businesses trying to stay afloat.