Move Over Gassy Jack
Sean Heather interviewed by Paul Kamon
With the successful opening of Salt in Blood Alley and the upcoming winter launch of alter-ego, Pepper in Railtown, charismatic Irishman Sean Heather has raised the bar for wannabee saloon owners and restaurateurs in the historical stomping grounds of original pioneer and namesake, Gassy Jack Deighton.
Urban Diner: What is your background?
Sean Heather: My mother is Canadian, my father Irish. I was born in Toronto. We moved to Ireland when I was 4. The country at the time was virtually a third world in terms of employment. My first job in the industry was washing dishes at 14 in London at Sloan’s Cafe. I later worked for an airline catering company when I was 23. I did have a Canadian passport so I had the opportunity to travel and work and eventually come to Vancouver, where I opened the Irish Heather in Gastown about 10 years ago. The industry is in my blood, I can’t seem to get away. (smiles)
UD: How did you decide that Gastown was the place you wanted to live and work?
SH: I really couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. In 1996, I took possession of the Irish Heather space. 29 years old with barely a pot to piss in. I strong-armed my parents into loaning me money. I got a bank loan and a business partner to get started. The building was already Irish (in appearance), so I didn’t need to do much to the space itself. The old bricks in the wall were originally from England and were brought on the ships as weight while crossing the ocean.
UD: What do you like about the area?
SH: I like the edge. The neighborhood (Gastown) has an incredible history and is a little more real than other areas of Vancouver. Cheap leases also help. Being flexible is important when starting a new business and not having to pay 25 k a month in rent has allowed me to take some chances. This neighborhood has been good to me.
UD: What do you dislike about the area? What needs to be fixed?
SH: The stigma that is not always warranted. It’s changing slowly but surely. Not fast enough. What else? I hate fuckin’ souvenir shops. (laughs)
UD: What are your thoughts about the Insight (drug injection site) in your neighborhood?
SH: It works. The government needs to get off its ass and endorse it. And I was the guy who originally thought it was bullshit. But it is working.
UD: Are you supportive of the new stadium proposed for the waterfront?
SH: I’m on the fence on that one. It’s a big fence (laughs) wanna join me? Either way, I’m okay. Ultimately, we need to cut through all the crap and deal with the real issues and come to a workable solution. Can our road system support it? Can we afford to turn down a free (privately funded) stadium?
UD: In your vision, what does Gastown look like in 10 years?
SH: Overall, Gastown will be a safer and more user-friendly place. The buildings are being seismically upgraded. There will be a greater sense of community. More patios, a greenway connecting the seawalls. In a couple of years, I see Gastown being the new Main Street with better buildings.
UD: Your thoughts on the upcoming Winter Olympic games?
SH: I look after locals. If tourists come, great. The way I see it, if you open a business and rely on tourists, then you live and die by it.
UD: Why did you put Salt in Blood Alley? How did you find this space?
SH: My business partner, Scott Hawthorn, bought the building and didn’t know what to do with the back of the building. We talked about it and over time we decided it would be great spot to try something new and different.
UD: How do you decide your restaurant/bar concepts? Is there an overall plan or idea behind them?
SH: I have about 15 notebooks with 15 different design concepts. I collect ideas and flesh them out over time. When a space comes up, I check my notebooks and see what fits.
UD: Tell me about Pepper, what is the concept?
SH: Pepper is a loosely based alter-ego of Salt. Like Salt, but with hot (temperature) small plates to share, paired with crafted draft beers and wine.
UD: What is your food and drink philosophy?
SH: You have to believe and be proud of what you are selling. If you can make it, make it, don’t buy it. Less frills on the table, better food on the plate.
UD: What is your favourite dish to eat when you go out?
SH: I like a good hamburger. I love foie gras. I love to eat!
UD: What restaurant(s) would you recommend other than your own?
SH: West. Great food, excellent service. It’s a little slice of London cooking in Vancouver. I would also recommend Aurora Bistro. Great people, and they consistently deliver a quality local experience.