Carnivore catastrophe: Why Pig BBQ is closing

Jeff Hetherington has fallen out of love and has taken off for the country.

The founder and owner of Pig BBQ, who says he has grown disillusioned with the industry, will close his restaurant in the Atrium building for good March 26, and turn his attention to a farm he and his family have been working for the past year.

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Somewhere between watching highly skilled and dedicated kitchen staff being paid well below their value, seemingly never-ending cost increases and the day-to-day slog of running a restaurant, Hetherington lost his love for running Pig BBQ Joint.

And that is why the 10-year-old restaurant, which gained a loyal, dedicated following from its humble beginnings in a small space on View Street to its move into 1,500 square feet in the Atrium building in 2010, will cease to be.

“This is not an overnight decision for me,” Hetherington said in an interview from his farm near Cowichan Bay, where he intends to dive in, overalls first, to a farmer’s life.

Response to news of the closing has ranged from disbelief to anger, with hundreds flooding Pig’s Facebook page with well-wishes, expressions of hope that it might continue and even a few asking for recipes.

It wasn’t any one factor that spurred the decision. Hetherington said it started dawning on him that it was time to get out when he closed Pig BBQ’s Langford location and sold its assets in April last year.

What was supposed to be a slam-dunk — the only BBQ joint in the West Shore and an area where he had operated previously — turned into a headache that was never busy and which sucked up the profits of the downtown location.

“It was the straw that broke my love for the business,” he said. “I wasn’t loving my business, so I had to make moves to get out.”

It was selling the assets that changed everything. Hetherington said instead of motivating him to focus his energies on the downtown restaurant, the sale gave him “a taste of freedom.”

And for a man who had grown disillusioned with the restaurant business as a whole, it was the catalyst for a bigger change.

“I think the restaurant industry is broken and I don’t have a solution. I’ve tried different things to figure out people’s tastes, staffing and how to work with the current labour pool,” he said.

But he was unable to figure out how the business can work at a time when restaurants cannot pay skilled staff a living wage and bring in quality ingredients without charging prices that would turn off customers.

Another factor was a good staff that afforded him the luxury of spending a lot of time with his family as his kids were growing. He got used to it. Hetherington knows his business suffered when he started stepping away, but he said he has no regrets.

“And if hindsight is 20/20, having a food truck and starting Pig with that is probably how Pig should be run. It got too big, in my personal opinion, and the [owner’s] personal touch was missing,” he said.

Then factor in the facts that the number of fast-casual restaurants has ballooned downtown — Hetherington says he was competing with five or six when he started and that is now closer to 25 — and that food trends have moved to raw and fresh from BBQ with extra bacon. It was time.

“I guess this will be a loss for some people, and I suppose it will be a loss for me, but I don’t think that when that restaurant closes that I’ll wake up wondering: ‘What have I done?’ ” he said. “It was the right thing for me, it is the right time.”

Instead he will focus on learning the ropes on the farm, raising pigs, chickens and sheep in the Cowichan Valley, an area the family discovered on a vacation two years ago.

At first they rented, but last year they bought a two-and-a-half acre property they are calling Farm 1740. His mother-in-law bought a neighbouring property that he will also use for livestock.

Hetherington is the first to say he is no farmer — he likes to point out he never called himself a chef either — but he has immersed himself in the new lifestyle.

“The people we’ve met here have been so amazing as far as sharing their wealth of knowledge. It’s so different from cooking, where everything’s a secret,” he said, adding he has become something of an apprentice to a veteran farmer in the area.

He expects he will have to work part time off the farm for at least the next year until they can start generating revenue from their animals and produce. But in the meantime, the family hopes to use their restaurant connections to push sales and establish a farm-gate store.

“It’s been pretty great so far. I sense I’m going in the right direction,” Hetherington said.

He intends to let some of the lessons learned at Pig BBQ govern how the farm works.

“I want to hit the ceiling in year two. I don’t want to expand, there’s no grandiose vision of anything,” he said. “If I learned anything with Pig BBQ, it’s to be happy being happy. If 300 square feet on View Street was the model that worked best for Pig, then it should have been that.

“That’s the theory behind this farm.”

And he is excited at the prospects.

“I see my future work schedule saying Jeff is always on and the chickens are always there, and chickens don’t need a weekend off for Rifflandia,” he said. “I like the idea that if you need something done, you do it and don’t have to rely on anyone else.”

Pig BBQ might live on in some form, however. Hetherington is selling the PigMobile — complete with branding, all recipes, employee handbook and the website — for $100,000.

He said there are currently three parties interested, and he intends to make sure it gets into the right hands.

“I was going to keep the food truck for the farm but I thought there might be somebody out there who could breathe life back into it, who has the energy to get it back going again,” he said.

As for the space at the Atrium, social-media rumours suggest Tacofino has an eye on the space for its ninth outlet.

The company has four locations and two food trucks in Vancouver, a taco bar on Fort Street in Victoria and its original truck in Tofino.

The company did not respond to questions by press time.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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