Appeared in Business in Vancouver – October 8, 2013
Big-shot CEOs take jets. Leah Johnson took the bus.
Whereby hangs a tale of small-business smarts, creative marketing and success. It’s a narrative about a dear old British double-decker bus nicknamed “Lucy” – converted to a coffee shop-plus. Small business indeed. Well, Starbucks also began with one store.
Johnson, 29, and partner Anne Hayward aren’t likely to corner the world’s passion for caffeine, but their colourful Wild Thyme Coffee House “bus stop” on Saturna Island brilliantly tapped into a market literally lining up past their door.
Saturna is one of the Gulf Islands, an idyllic retreat or permanent home for many prominent Vancouverites past and present, including former trade minister and senator Pat Carney, Simon Fraser University political scientist Marjorie Cohen, urban planner Peter Oberlander, journalists and writers Eric Nicol, Doug Collins and Jean Howarth, artists Nancy Angermeyer, Jack Campbell, Donna Fay Digance and Anne Popperwell. Demographics: Grim. Islands Trust trustee Paul Brent lists the facts. In 2011, B.C. population over 60, 22%, Saturna 54%; B.C. population change 2006 to 2011, 7% increase, Saturna 6.7% decrease. Saturna’s elementary school enrolment this September: Two. Yes, two.
There’s a grocery store and charming pub at the ferry point. Up East Point Road is the general store owned by island treasure Jon Guy and the adjoining café run by Hubertus Surm, who could easily cook for a top Vancouver restaurant. In between, where long ferry lineups form – that’s where Leah Johnson perceived an opportunity.
Her vision began with a business plan in 2011. She had quit school at 15 to work at the Saturna winery. She returned to school studying hospitality and worked at Victoria’s Executive House. “My life was literally polar opposites – in the city I worked as a bartender/waitress in a high-end hotel, on Saturna I farmed garlic and lived in a one-room cabin without hot running water. Against many words of wisdom I decided to work on my business plan and gave up my job in the city.”
What she saw was a yawning niche. The first ferry left Saturna Mondays to Fridays – winter schedule, at a sleep-shattering 6:25 a.m.
“Before we opened, there was nothing available before 9 a.m.”
Off-season, the ferry store and pub are closed several weekdays. On smaller ferries there’s no food service, only snacks and beverages out of, shudder, machines, a long time between decent nourishment.
So Wild Thyme opens at a ghastly 4:45 a.m. Travelling caffeine addicts cheer. Lunches with flair attract island-dwellers as well as ferry patrons.
Johnson’s dream had an essential wrinkle: Converting a double-decker bus into a café. She found one, a 1963 Glasgow-built Leyland that had served England’s Southend area and in 1978 was gussied up to transport the British teams at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. A story in itself, it spiralled down to tour bus and ice cream truck and through Kamloops and Sorrento to Surrey, where its vandalized carcass lay for years.
Johnson snapped up “Lucy” in April 2012. “We completely renovated it from a windowless shell into a fully operational cafe in 5½ months … with mostly volunteer labour from members of our fine community.” Named Wild Thyme, the café opened September 28, 2012.
The kitchen occupies the first level. A winding staircase leads to tables at what the British call “outside” – the second level. The patio is a leafy gem. Funny signage helps. Kids love it.
Rezoning, a septic tank … the permit process could have stiffed the dream.
“In the end we had 32 letters of support written to Islands Trust” – tough watchdog over Gulf Islands development and environment – “in favour of the permit,” Johnson said. She asked 218 people to sign her petition. Only one didn’t.
“Our island trustees and the staff of the Islands Trust were all very helpful and great to work with,” said Johnson. “There is no way Wild Thyme would be in business if it wasn’t for the good will and generosity of my community as a whole.”
Many would say: “I love Lucy.”
© Trevor Lautens, 2013