Janaki Larsen of Le Marché St. George
Prominently perched on the corner of St. George Street and 28th Avenue in a peaceful, residential Vancouver neighbourhood sits Le Marché St. George, a café and market selling everything from locally-farmed eggs to hand-woven turkish blankets. Janaki Larsen, along with her sister Klee and husband Pascal Roy, opened the café in November 2010. Anyone who’s been there can attest to the laid-back, neighbourhood mood that drenches the space. Kids roam the street outside, moms catch up casually over Americanos in vintage chipped teacups, and young folks arrange their croissants just so while snapping photos with their smartphones. It’s a place built upon family and community, which is rare to find in a big city. I sat down to chat with Janaki and hear the story of Le Marché, and why it’s so important to have a place like it.
Photos by Grady Mitchell
M: When did you open Le Marché St. George, and what influenced your decision to open it?
"I was pregnant with our daughter, and we were living in an illegal warehouse and the city was starting to come a lot. So I was often driving around with our bed in the back of the car because we weren’t supposed to live there (laughs). I knew about this building for a long time from my friend who lives a block away, so I’d drive by and look at it. It was not very pretty, covered in gray stucco, but there was something about it that I liked. I liked that it was in in the middle of nowhere and I always thought, ‘God it would be great to open a little restaurant there.’ My friend called me one day out of the blue and was like, ‘Your building’s for sale.’ So we went to the open house, put in an offer and they took it."
M: Had you been looking for places?
"We had always discussed the concept of buying an apartment building for the family and all living in it, like a little 60s two-level thing. So the idea was out there but we weren’t really looking for anything. The opportunity came up and we took it."
M: What happened next?
"It proceeded to the reality that it was a really run down building. We had a lot of enthusiasm and energy, and then we got the keys and I walked in and I bawled my eyes out. Because it was tiny, the rooms were tiny and it was just not what was in my brain. So there was some buyer’s remorse for a while. But then the next day we proceeded to take a wall out. At that point I was seven months pregnant and I was pretty big, climbing up ladders and using crowbars. We just went for it."
M: Had you done any research prior to opening?
"We didn’t know anything about opening a café or a restaurant or anything about the neighbourhood or who lived around here because we never saw anybody. We blindly dove into this whole idea and had no business plan and no idea. I just wanted to open a really beautiful thing. You know when you’re in Europe, and you go to the post office and it’s amazing, and you go to the bank and it’s beautiful. Here everyone treats those things like an inconvenience and they want to do a big shop and get everything done all at once. I just wanted to have a really beautiful, intimate little spot” and work in it with my daughter and my sister."
M: You also make ceramics. How do you balance that with managing Le Marché St. George?
"I’ve done ceramics for about 15 years now, but it was never something I did with the intention of trying to make an actual living out of. Both my parents are artists but it was never an easy living growing up. So I was like ‘I’m gonna work in film, make tons of money and make pots to make myself happy.’"
M: How do you source everything for the shop and where do you look for inspiration?
"I’m always paying attention to what people are doing. In the beginning it was basically a lot of going to farmers markets and the Internet. And now people mostly come to us. And any time we’re in a new city I go to the local hardware store, local farmers markets and grocery stores, just to see what is specific to that area."
M: What process did you have to go through to obtain the right permits for this type of business?
"When I first went to city hall, I learned we had a ‘non-conforming building,’ which I thought was a romantic name, but I didn’t know what it meant. It’s a commercial space in a residential neighbourhood, which has very definite rules of what you can do. My list of what I had to sell was: milk, white sugar, flour, cigarettes, lotto tickets and adult magazines. It was stuck in I don’t know what era. There had to be a grocery component, which is not something I planned on doing in the beginning, it just came out of necessity. But I’m glad it happened because that’s one of my favourite parts about it."
M: How did the neighbourhood respond?
"We have one neighbour who thinks we’re just too haywire for the neighbourhood, but everyone else has been amazing. when we opened is there was a lot of young families that moved here from the west side and a lot of kids that around Lola’s age now. There’s a pack of them and they just go from one house to the next, they have little siblings now. Everyone comes to the back yard and hangs out with the chickens."
M: So you’ve gained quite a following in the community. Did you ever expect to become so popular?
"It wasn’t like we wanted to become a destination spot, we just wanted to make a beautiful thing in the neighbourhood FOR the neighbourhood. I think there was a real lack of these things around, especially for neighbourhoods like this, that suddenly people wanted to come. Bill and Anita come every day and they live in the West End. They drive every single morning and they know everybody in here."
M: Were there ever challenges or concerns that it wouldn’t be successful?
"The reality is you do have to make money. You can do things for a lot of love but if it’s not supporting your life then it becomes a drain after awhile. By the time we opened the store, we really had to open the store (laughs). We did go to auctions and we did it very ‘craigslist,’ but I remember we had to open the store. All this money was going out and nothing was coming in. And then you’re like, 'Well what if nobody comes?' and every day I still wonder that. We’ve been open for five years but what if suddenly nobody comes and the next new thing opens up and they start going to that?” But people still keep discovering us which is amazing."
M: Do you have any advice for people who want to open a business or follow their passion?
"I think one of the biggest reasons why its been successful is because it wasn’t designed for anybody but ourselves. It’s a true representation of how we live our lives and it’s not made to appeal to a broad group of people. People ask and I say, 'Do what you are passionate about.' It’s a cliché but I think people feel that and they understand that it comes from somewhere other than a business plan or any marketing [idea]."
M: What are some favourite places you’ve traveled, or places you love escaping to?
"I love Mexico, the unpolished-ness of it. It can be everything from rodeos to the most amazing architecture you’ve ever seen, to beautiful textiles to beautiful beaches to the WORST architecture you’ve ever seen (laughs), to carcasses hanging up everywhere. It’s everything all at once, all the time and I’m a sensory nut, so it’s a good place for me. My other happy place is outside of the city. In the city, I don’t go anywhere that often, it’s pretty much this corner or that corner and I go in between."
M: Do you have any future plans with Le Marché St. George?
"That changes a lot. I’m really attached to it. People ask if I would ever open another one and I don’t think I could give the same attention to another space. I think it would be amazing to be able to extend this suite and turn it into a restaurant, and people could come and drink wine on the patio – but it’s probably never going to happen because the city is bonkers."
M: Do you think the city has evolved with more of these kind of store and café type businesses?
"I think the city was stuck in this old, strange mentality of what a neighbourhood convenience store was. And I think what people find convenient is totally different now. People want to go meet their friends and bring their kids, they don’t necessarily want to buy adult magazines on the corner anymore (laughs)."
M: Do you think the city needs more community-driven places?
"I could rant forever about the condo developments and how they are changing how people relate to each other, and I think that’s why things like this are really important and why people respond so strongly to places like this. Because everything else is just becoming this non-experiential way of living with people. It doesn’t promote community, sustainability, or anything like that."
"I don’t spend a lot of time in Olympic Village (laughs), but I drive though and it feels really empty to me. Even if there are people there, it’s like a pre-fabricated experience and you’re supposed to have a pre-fabricated life in there. I think people are kind of over that right now. That being said, I think there’s a lot of people here who are doing pretty powerful stuff too. I think the city needs to get more comfortable in itself."