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On Liquor, Licensing and Loopholes, with Keenan Hood of The Keefer

The Keefer Yard, an al fresco space dedicated to outdoor games and good times, closed last week. As construction workers were removing the last pieces of The Yard, we caught up with The Keefer Bar’s General Manager, Keenan Hood, for a recap on the past couple of years…

According to Hood, it all started as a way to keep staff working: “Covid capacity restrictions were forcing lots of businesses to close doors and lay off staff. At The Keefer, we were only allowed to run at 50% capacity, and had to close at a time of night when we would typically welcome the largest number of patrons through our doors. We wanted to keep staff and customers safe, but under these restrictions, it became apparent that the situation would be financially untenable. That’s when we made the call to lease the space next door in order to amp up our outdoor seating capacity”.

Here’s some background from our story on The Keefer Yard back in July 2020…

The idea for The Keefer Yard is simple: run long rows of bench-style seats against both walls and front them with a 9-hole putting green. Putters and balls are available to rent for a small fee that will be donated to local charitable organizations, starting with the Hogan’s Alley Society. There will be other games to play, too (e.g. horseshoes), and GM Keenan Hood tells me he’s also planning for a food truck to be present.

To the left of the entrance will be a 12-foot bar, which will feature two cocktails on tap, special slushies, Good Company beer, a new collab cider from Dominion called ‘Chinatown Cheeky’, and a few other sips besides. The whole lot, which is owned by Anthem Properties, is being fenced in for this project, with access strictly controlled to meet the BC Health Officer’s Covid-19 protocols.

The move paid off by allowing The Keefer not just to retain staff, but also to hire friends that had been laid off from other establishments. The Keefer Yard was bringing people in – at one point even running with a staff of 48. Times were, for a while at least, strangely good.

When winter hit and rain started to fall, it was no longer sustainable to operate the Yard without a cover. So the team made the logical call to get a tent. However, what seemed like a simple solution was quite complicated because of the various required permits from different departments. Although the City Of Vancouver was trying to be helpful, communications were flying at Hood from multiple sources, making it a confusing project. Short story: they weren’t up to code. To have everything by the book, The Keefer Yard would have to be 10 feet from the walls of buildings on either side of the Yard with fire-rated walls that would have to have been constructed at their cost. Because the space was only theirs for the short term (as a series of 3-month-long leases), building didn’t make sense. Winter moved into spring, and then summer. The party finally had to end. Keenan admits: “The City turned a blind eye by letting us operate as long as they did”.

Was it worth it? “Definitely!” says Hood, “For a lot of reasons…most obviously because we hired a lot of people and kept them working; but also because we invited several businesses to hold pop-ups when restrictions prohibited them from operating out of their existing addresses – Calabash, Shuck Shuck Oyster Bar, Cuchillo and Bao Bei, to name a few (and DD Mau – who took over our food program when their pipes broke and flooded their space). Then there was the social aspect: we offered the community a fresh air space with tables well-spaced (10 feet apart) and good airflow, so that people could go out and feel both safe and connected when they really needed it. The final win would be that our by-donation mini putt course helped fund a rotating roster of local charitable organizations with a whopping $135,051 sent back into the community.” Some of the local charities that benefited from the Yard’s putt-putt included the Eastside Boxing Club ($2,715), IRSSS ($12,523), Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden ($5,761), DD Mau Staff Relief Fund ($4,562), Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis ($7,885) and BC Wildfire Relief ($4,300) – among many others.

Although The Keefer Yard will be sorely missed, Hood won’t miss the constant stress of knowing it wouldn’t last forever. When that day came last week, Hood paused and said, “It was terrible. I had to let 20 people go. We lost a total of 23. There were tears”. The team was very close. Thankfully, The Keefer made calls and found jobs for everyone.

“I’m proud of what we did with The Keefer Yard. I’m happy about how hard I tried and feel good about what we achieved. The Keefer Yard was a reaction to a challenging situation, but it was a reaction that was designed to give back to the community at a time when it was needed. We did that. Plus, lots of new ideas came out of this experiment. We pushed boundaries, and we learned a lot of lessons. Our next project will benefit from everything we went through over the last few years.”

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