After 28 years of being a fixture in Squamish, the Wigan Pier restaurant was forced to close due to a fire that swept the Tantalus Mall building on Family Day.
While the owner and founder Gregory Venables and his business partner Amanda Lally are already drawing up plans for a reopening, the closure has also provided a little bit of time to reflect on the memories that made the place what it was.
One of the most memorable experiences Venables had occurred over a couple of decades.
Many years ago, a little boy used to come to the fish and chips restaurant with his grandfather, who'd roll in on his wheelchair, Venables remembered. The boy, probably about five years old, would always bring his favourite snack — wine gums. It became something of a ritual. He'd dine in with his grandpa, and, as a nice gesture, the boy would leave a tip of one wine gum at the table each time.
About two decades later, Venables recalled seeing a group of young men arrive in the restaurant.
"This one guy said to me, 'Do you recognize me?' And he had a big beard and what have you," recalled Venables.
"And I said, 'No, I don't.' And I just carried on doing my job. And then the waitress came to me and she said, 'Oh, there's something for you on that table.' So I went over and it was a wine gum, and I realized it was the little boy that grew up."
He said that getting to know people was one of the big highlights of his time working in the restaurant.
"It was nice to socialize with the local people and get to know them. And it was lovely," Venables said.
He said it was one of the motivators for making every single plate perfect.
"Because you're cooking for, like, a big family, really, of people that you know," Venables said.
He was not the only one waxing sentimental about the restaurant. On social media, there was an outpouring of goodwill from people who shared their stories about Wigan Pier.
Venables said the support was overwhelming. It's a clear indicator of how far Venables has come since deciding to pursue work in the culinary business.
Venables said that as a youth in England, he'd been fascinated with food and different types of cuisine. He'd later get his start by joining a catering course in college. After finishing that up, he decided to start working in other parts of Europe.
This led him to a gig in Munich with the Sheraton Hotel, where he worked as a chef and created butter and ice sculptures. He said he received a gold medal for his efforts.
There, he'd meet chefs from around the world, who would give him tips and contacts that helped him decide where he'd travel next. Venables would continue working in the food business as he travelled back to England and later to Bermuda and Australia.
However, Venables said that after watching a documentary on Vancouver, he wanted to come to Canada. There was something about the mountains that drew him in. He would wind up moving to Toronto, where he found a job as a sous chef as the Toronto Marriott Hotel opened downtown around 1989.
"It was a great job, and I loved it. But I just knew that I just had to get out to B.C. So I came over, and I just looked around, and I went up to Whistler," he said.
On his trip, he also visited Squamish. He would later decide to buy a small house in town, and, one year later, in 1994, he opened up Wigan Pier.
Fast forward 28 years, and the restaurant has become a well-loved institution in town. Then came the fire.
That fateful day
On Feb. 21, a blaze tore through the Tantalus Mall building, destroying the restaurant, residential units and another neighbouring business, Grounded Grocer.
As of Feb. 28, the cause is still being investigated by firefighters.
"It's shocking to sort of see the flames, you know, and see that go up…after 28 years," Venables said, though he noted that the most important thing is that everyone made it out alive.
Despite the setback, there are still signs of hope.
Venables said that over 15 years ago, he made some alterations to the restaurant's deck, which included putting up an eagle sculpture that he had made.
The raptor was intended to be a symbol of Squamish, he said.
The fire ravaged much of the restaurant. But the eagle sculpture still stands.
Beyond the symbolic, however, Venables said he and Lally are already busy drawing up plans to reopen the business.
Venables said that the timing of the fire was peculiar. The fire occurred one day before Lally was expected to take full ownership of the restaurant, he said.
Lally was hired as a manager at the restaurant about a year and a half ago, and, over time, became increasingly important in the operations of the business.
After selling the place, Venables was still expecting to work at the restaurant, but Lally was to take over the reins.
Venables said the restaurant needed new blood to keep evolving with the times, and Lally, who arrived in Squamish about four years ago, was the person to make that happen.
Lally, who is from Ireland, told The Squamish Chief that on her first visit to the restaurant, things felt right.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, this feels like home,'" she remembered.
Perhaps her fondest memory of the place was in May, when COVID restrictions were loosened, and the restaurant was reopened for dining in.
"That was really lovely," said Lally. "All the comments and people coming in being like, 'Oh, the place looks great.' And, you know, after doing all of your hard work."
Prior to the reopening, she and Venables had renovated the place.
Lally had a vision of moving the eatery in the direction of an Irish-English theme, with later hours and live music.
She added that she's been deeply moved and thankful for the love from the community.
"It's amazing the amount of support the community has," said Lally.
"It's unbelievable. Like, I'm so heartbroken. But I still have faith that it will come back. And I cannot see myself without the Wigan Pier. I've worked so hard for it. So hard. And I can't see Squamish without the Wigan Pier, to be honest."
Lally said she's determined to keep as many of the community pictures that hung in the restaurant as she can, and she hopes to hang them on the walls of the Wigan Pier's new location, wherever that may be.
The fire has cancelled Lally's buyout, but the pair still plan on working together.
"I've met with Amanda every day since then, and I'm saying, Do you wanna? Do you want to reopen? And it's like, 100%," Venables said.
The support from the community has given the pair motivation to reopen the restaurant in a new home, as the building has been severely damaged.
Venables said he'd like to get the ball rolling again as soon as possible, as it can take a few years for everything to come together. The sooner they start working on the next step, the sooner they can reopen.
The pair have set up a GoFundMe campaign, "Help Save The Wigan Pier Restaurant." to assist with the costs of finding a new home for Wigan Pier in Squamish.
Those interested in helping out can donate.
Lally said that if the restaurant doesn't wind up using the funds, the money will go to a local charity.
"I think I sort of owe it to the community to reopen again," Venables said.
*Please note, we have corrected this story since it was first posted to say that Greg Venables created butter and ice sculptures, not bottle and ice.