In Conversation with Justin TisdallBy Natalie Gitt
If you’re familiar with Vancouver, BC’s dining scene, it’s likely that you’ve encountered BeetBox, Juke Fried Chicken, or The Chickadee Room—and perhaps even noticed their common thread. “Great quality comfort food, with a subtle music theme and a fun space,” says Justin Tisdall, who co-owns all three.
Inspired by his hometown and finicky eating habits, he set out to fill a gap in Vancouver’s restaurant scene. “In Toronto, whenever I go home to visit, there are always great lounges where you can go have a drink and listen to great music. In Vancouver, you only have the option of a restaurant or club, nothing really in between.”
Born and raised in Toronto, the restaurateur and entrepreneur initially made his way west to compete as a competitive swimmer while attending the University of British Columbia. “Being on the National Team at the time didn’t cover the cost of living, so I needed to get a job that worked around my training schedule,” he explains. “I began to work evenings in restaurants and took [on] the mentality of trying to be the best at what I do in my approach to bartending and restaurant service.”
Eventually, he had the idea to open a quick service restaurant and cocktail bar serving high quality ingredients and approachable food. Together with his colleague of 15 years (and business partner of 7), the concept blossomed into Juke Fried Chicken, a popular joint in the Chinatown area serving Southern-inspired fare, and The Chickadee Room. “The idea was to open a small, fun room where guests could come, eat great food, and just have a good time.”
“The Chickadee Room was what Juke’s Dining room was originally supposed to be,” he says. “With dining rooms closed during the pandemic, this gave us the opportunity to finally give our cocktail and snack bar its own identity.” The result: an ‘80s-inspired cocktail and snack bar concept serving Juke’s take-out menu.
Next came BeetBox, Juke’s plant-based counterpart. Catering to vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians alike, the West End joint’s menu features comfort staples like the Nashville Fried “Chick-Un” Sandwich, Jerk Tempeh Bowl, and Kale Tahini Salad alongside organic soda, kombucha, and beer.
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of your time in the industry?
Meeting my wife has definitely been the most rewarding aspect. Aside from all the knowledge and education I’ve acquired, and [the] places this job has taken me around the world, I think the most rewarding part has been the friendships that have lasted a lifetime. In this industry, you meet the most unique people. As a business owner, I’m in the fortunate position to be able to help these people achieve their goals, just like those before me have helped me.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in the industry, and how have you worked to navigate them?
I always find this question a challenge to answer. As a BIPOC business owner, there are many ways to interpret this. In a restaurant, there are always challenges for any owner or operator. I think as a young man, there were some hurdles along the way where people would look at me and think I was not qualified to speak intelligently about wine, or that I would be the General Manager of the restaurant. This was part of the reason I was excited to open my own businesses; so I could set an example for all those younger people [who] had never seen someone who looked like them as an entrepreneur or restaurant owner. Though I will say, contrary to some of the hurdles, I also had a lot of great people open doors for me and help me through those doors. I believe they saw my work ethic and wanted to invest in me as much as I was willing to invest in myself.
Are there any ways in which you've felt that Vancouver's restaurant scene has progressed since you started? Are there any areas where you feel there's a need for change?
I’ve been in Vancouver’s food scene for over 20 years now. It’s been amazing to see how quickly it’s grown to become one of the best food cities in the world. Vancouver is definitely a city where restaurants are woven into the culture of who Vancouverites are. Over the past years, you’re seeing those long-term employees of top-notch establishments go on to open their own unique cool ideas. It’s great to see.
As Vancouver is quickly becoming more multicultural, you’re definitely seeing this reflected in the food offerings. For years, there were certain cuisines that were not too prominent or very hard to find; now, new great restaurants are popping up all the time of all different cultures and ethnicities.
I feel that the change is coming. People like me are starting to see more representation in all facets of the restaurant space, and that makes me proud to see.
What's next for you and your businesses?
Ha, always a weighted question! We’re hoping to open a few spaces within the next short while. We know that with the pandemic, brick-and-mortars are a tough go, so we’re always thinking about how to work with that problem. We’re looking at packaged products, and hopefully getting into some grocery stores as well. I would say my business partner and I have lofty goals, and we’re just getting the pieces of our team in place to help us execute our vision—while at the same time helping our team achieve their goals.
* Interview has been condensed.