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Sooke residents band together to save beloved local cafe

The Stick in the Mud coffee house is now co-op owned and will be renamed Café Vosino

A beloved Sooke coffee house closed its doors Sunday but is expected to reopen later this summer or fall, after about 400 community members banded together to purchase the business through a co-op.

Stick in the Mud Coffee House owner David Evans signed the sale papers with Sooke Community Investment Cooperative president Wendy O’Connor in front of a cheering crowd on Sunday an hour before closing.

The café is expected to reopen under the name Café Vosino, after V0S 1N0, Sooke’s former postal code and the shop’s popular Americano drink.

The amount of money exchanged in the sale — which did not include copyright of the Stick brand — was not made public.

The race to save the Stick began in April when coffee shop regulars O’Connor, Jim Meunier and Bernie Klassen learned that Evans was going to close the store in July, after 16 years, to focus on the roastery and wholesale side of the business.

The three retirees, who had become friends at the café, were unwilling to see the closure of the shop, a hub for local politics and music and even the site of wedding proposals.

“It’s the beating heart of Sooke,” O’Connor said. “It can’t be replaced by another coffee chain.”

Working with Co-Operatives First, a Saskatoon-based co-op creator, the trio formed a co-op and began raising money to purchase the business.

The initial goal was to raise $250,000, although the amount needed looks like it could be less than that. O’Connor says the co-op has now raised about 70 per cent of the funds needed.

Last-minute donations came flying in, with more than $16,000 raised on Saturday alone, she said.

Evans, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, had put the café on the market in 2018, then ended up keeping it, but said the COVID-19 pandemic prompted him to reconsider his priorities.

“Rare is the moment for a business owner when they are forced to step back and look objectively at their business,” he said. “You start a business and you plan it out and everything’s worked out to the penny.

“But over time, you get pulled in different directions.”

When he announced the closure in April, he said, “a lot of people reached out and said they wanted to buy the business.”

The best option, he thought, was the community-based co-op. “The people who are regulars here deserve to have a share.”

He’s not completely getting out of the coffee business — Evans will continue to operate the roastery next door under a new name, The Stick’s Roastoreum.

With the sale of the café and bakery, Evans, a father of three, the youngest of whom is 16, says he’ll now have more time for family.

“I missed so many important moments when my kids were growing up,” he said. “I don’t want to miss any more.”

As for the coffee house, Evans says it’s in good hands.

It was a busy final day for the café, with five baristas working behind the till, but the employees — many of whom had purchased a co-op membership — were overjoyed to learn of the decision.

“My biggest fear was having to go somewhere else,” said Oliver Hathaway, adding it has been fun to work at the store for the past two years. “It’s never been the kind of vibe where everyone has to, I don’t know, wear black and like just become an android.

“We’re allowed to be ourselves.”

Stick in the Mud has sold the popular V0S1N0 decal often spotted on local vehicle bumpers and has a casual atmosphere, with popular menu items named eggamajig and icecream-a-jig.

“It’s the best job ever,” said Piper Allman, another employee.

The co-op is still welcoming new members and investors to help pay for the first three months of operational costs when the café reopens.

Membership shares start at $1 each, with a minimum purchase of 30, and investment shares are $500 each. Members can get “patronage rebates” and can participate in the co-op’s operation and governance, while investors can also receive dividends from the café.

All 15 current staff members will be offered the chance to work for the café when it reopens, said Meunier, a director with the Sooke Community Investment Cooperative.

The co-op is looking at the option of bringing in pop-up coffee vendors or food trucks to keep people coming to the location in the meantime. It’s also looking to hire a general manager to oversee daily operations.

The hope is that the co-operative will eventually transition into a fully worker-owned co-op, Meunier said. 

Dallas Gislason, executive director of community economies at the South Island Prosperity Partnership, said he hopes that more people looking to exit their businesses will explore co-op ownership structures.

“They remain a really great tool for smaller towns,” he said. “I think we’re going to see more of it in the coming years.”

It’s the independent businesses in smaller economic centres such as Sooke, Sidney and Brentwood Bay that make a vibrant economy in Greater Victoria, he said.

“I would encourage the residents of Sooke and anyone who’s frequenting that area of the region — which many of us do — to become a member and support it.”