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About a Squamish local: Lessons in business and life

Q&A with Jennifer Just, former owner of The Green Moustache Organic Café.

You likely know her smiling face from behind the counter of the now-closed Green Moustache Café downtown or from seeing this life-long Sea to Sky Corridor resident around town. 

Jennifer Just was born and grew up in Whistler, later moved to Squamish and then, six years ago, opened the popular vegan eatery.

The Squamish Chief caught up with her to learn more about why she closed the cafe, what she is up to now and her thoughts on the changes in Squamish. 

During our call, her happy toddler could be heard babbling to her and laughing in the background. 

What follows is an edited version of our conversation with Just.

When did you move to Squamish, and what do you make of all the changes? 

Just after the Olympics. When I first moved here into a four-bedroom house, it was like $1,100 for the entire house. Unheard of now. That was 12 years ago, but it just doesn't feel that long ago.

Squamish has grown so fast. And especially coming from Whistler — I saw it up there growing up, too. Whistler was much quieter and then it grew, and Squamish followed suit a little bit.

Are there positives you see to the growth here too? 

Definitely. It is cool to see that more people discovered that this place is great. That's why I chose to stay here, and I convinced my parents to move here; they love it, and it is such an awesome place. And it's really cool to see all the new businesses coming in. I don't see it all in a negative way for sure. But it's just crazy to see. I have friends who grew up here their whole lives; obviously, it's much different for them. They tell me stories of how much quieter it was. It's just what happens everywhere if you live in a beautiful town. People will discover it.

How old is your son, and what is his name? 

He is 14 months old. His name is Remi.

Great name. Is there a reason or story behind it? 

No. We just liked it. Honestly, we had such a hard time figuring out boy names. I had a list of girls’ names. I don't know why it was way harder for us with boys’ names. Many of them that I liked, my husband didn't like, or vice versa. So Remi is one we just both liked and settled on.

So is it safe to assume that is what you have been up to most lately — caring for Remi? 

For the most part. The sale of the café just went through on June 15. 

June 1 was actually six years since I opened the café. I'm still finishing up the financials and that kind of thing.

And I have taken a bit of a mental break because it has been a whirlwind of a year with Remi and the sale. I had really great staff and everything, but it is still non-stop. When I was in labour, even, I was in the hospital bed trying to figure out staffing and stuff. 

Now, I'm just trying to figure out what's next for me. Part of me still kind of wants to be an entrepreneur. On a smaller scale, maybe, in the future — catering or something.

I love the food prep part of it. But then part of me also kind of wants to just work a nine-to-five, to work for somebody else, not be the boss and be able to leave it at work at the end of the day. 

I'm looking into my options.

Why did you want to close the café? 

There were a few different reasons. I was actually thinking of selling literally right before COVID hit. I had a meeting with a realtor. I felt like the stress was kind of taking a toll on me. I enjoyed it, but I was just thinking, maybe this isn't right. 

And we were thinking of starting a family. So, I was concerned I wouldn't be able to do both for a while. 

Then when COVID hit, I was like, nobody's going to want to buy a business now. 

But it forced me to sit and think about it. 

We closed for a bit with the pandemic and then reopened and changed a few things. For example, we put in a low-waste market where the seating was. 

While we got the COVID-19 business loans and stuff, you still have to pay most of it back. You're still going more into debt. So there were times when I had discussions with my family — because my parents have been a huge support — where we thought maybe it would be better just to close the doors and stop just trying to hang on. 

Then I got pregnant, and my five-year lease went up last year. So it was June 1 when my lease was supposed to end, and my due date was June 10 and of course, with Squamish the way it is, my landlord wanted to raise the rent. So in the middle of COVID, it was just a lot.

It was one thing after the other where I was still like, you know what, I can still keep it going. And then it just kept piling on. And finally, I decided it's just not for me anymore. It's been like a great run. It is just time for something else.

I had hoped someone could take it over, but that didn't happen. 

So selling was kind of a mix of everything.

It got things rolling when the opportunity came up for somebody who wanted the space, equipment, and everything.

What were some of the highlights or joys of owning the café over the six years?

My whole life, I have loved being in the kitchen. 

Even when I worked for the Whistler Green Moustache location, it was the first job that I really loved and really enjoyed going to every day. 

Also, interacting with the customers and how excited they were about what we were doing, and the staff.

We had great regulars who said they were feeling so much better eating whole foods. That was really rewarding.

And with staff, we didn't require anyone to have experience because we would teach them; they would learn about cooking with whole foods.  Just knowing that and putting out food that not only tastes good but was good for you, that was really exciting for me. To go in every day to do that, I didn't mind the long hours. 

When we announced we were closing, I had so many old staff post or message me. That is really rewarding.

I just love that I made great relationships with the staff, who are now lifelong friends who I wouldn't have met otherwise. I'm super grateful for that.

I had a great group of people. They saved me when I had Remi and couldn't be there a lot. They all really stepped up. That was one of the hardest things about closing, because I know a few of them really wanted to stay long-term and really enjoyed it, but they were so understanding and knew that it was time and better for me to close it. 

And I learned a lot. My parents say it's almost like owning the business was a university education. I learned so much and was just kind of thrown into it. So now I can take that learning with me. I have all those skills, even with bookkeeping and admin, all those things that I had no idea about before. I just had to learn. 

What are the other challenges of being specifically in Squamish and trying to run your business?

I feel like one of the things even before COVID happened was there wasn't really any consistency to how busy it would be. Some Sundays, when we used to be open on Sundays, it would be either lined up out the door or just a few people all day. It was really hard to gauge. 

And just growing with the changes and trying to keep up with that.

Rent going up and stuff like that. Rolling with the punches.

And then having staff unable to stay because they don't have housing and there's barely any rooms or rent is going up. Before the District put the camping restrictions in, almost all my staff were living in vans at one point. They liked it, especially in the summer, but it was wild to see.

Looking back, what would be your advice to yourself when you started or to someone like you who's just starting a business in Squamish?

I think in the beginning, I would jump to react to every little thing, and it seemed much bigger at the time than it does now. 

So, know you're going to have many challenges. Things will come up, and you just have to remind yourself that it will always work out no matter the outcome. Nothing's ever going to be too bad. 

At the end of the day, you will be grateful for those teachable moments. 

About a local is a regular column about an interesting Squamish resident. If you have someone you think we should feature, let us know. Email: jthuncher@squamishchief.com.