Pass through downtown Vancouver on any given evening, especially a weekend night, and it’s a much different place than it was just a couple of years ago. New bars, restaurants, breweries and retail fronts are clear evidence of the county seat’s slow but steady transition from a sleepy daytime-only downtown to a vibrant, active, round-the-clock city.
Low Bar, at 809 Washington Street, just celebrated its second anniversary. Owners Nate Barile, 30, and Keith Pemberton, 34, took a calculated risk when they opened the bar/restaurant on November 25, 2012, and it’s one that appears to be paying off. The eatery was named Best in Business for 2014 by readers of the Vancouver Business Journal in the Bar/Brewpub category last month.
“I’d been bartending, bar managing and bar consulting for a decade before going into this project,” said Pemberton. “Nate has been a district manager and general manager for large corporate restaurants. He has a great personality and gets the big picture, so he was a perfect partner for a small bar like the Low Bar.”
When they started, Barile and Pemberton (and their third, silent partner, Bruno Amici) had two additional partners. “Everyone thought we were crazy, going in with five partners,” said Pemberton. “But at the time I thought I needed people in all of these different roles. It wasn’t really working well for the other two, so they moved on to other things. We still have a great relationship and they’re doing really cool things.”
With Low Bar, the owners wanted to complement the venues that were already in operation downtown. “We wanted to be different,’ Pemberton said. “We didn’t want anyone to feel that we were competing. Tommy O’s is right next door to us. They’re still busy all the time, and we get along really well. We offer different things.”
One of the ways Low Bar is different is that, with no table service, patrons order at the bar. “All my partners thought I was crazy in the beginning,” said Pemberton. “But the layout of the bar would have made it difficult to run servers.” Keeping staff at the bar allowed Pemberton to offer faster service to customers, while also keeping staff overhead costs low. “We do pretty much everything from scratch,” he said, “and we order from the same high-quality vendors as high-end places like Lapellah, but we charge the same as the other downtown bars. Coming to the bar saves us money and saves you time.”
“The obstacles we had to overcome,” Pemberton said, “we knew about when we started. There wasn’t a lot that actually surprised us. The primary issue we had was that we started with very little startup capital. Every piece of profit we made had to go immediately back into the business.”
For the most part, Pemberton and Barile have had a good experience opening Low Bar in downtown Vancouver. Some of the city’s tax policies have been frustrating.
“On top of your regular city taxes, every year you have to pay $50 an employee up to 10 employees. We have about 12 people. So a Walmart pays the same as we do. It doesn’t seem fair if every year we have to pay the head tax and more on top of that, and then also pay for parking downtown, and we also cleaned up an empty storefront downtown. It’s kind of disheartening but I guess you have to get used to it.”
Even with hurdles like the city’s head tax, Pemberton and Barile are exploring a new project, offering few details until they know more about it.
“Vancouver’s always been an interesting place,” Pemberton said. “If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t stay and I certainly wouldn’t put a business down there. There’s a lot of positive change coming, and it’s already in motion.”