In a beloved DTES diner, the new owners work with heart
The Ovaltine Café rises again
Even before Grace Chen and her daughter Rachel took the helm of the iconic Ovaltine Cafe at 251 E. Hastings St. last fall, their street cred in the Downtown Eastside community was substantial.
Grace ran the original Save On Meats diner down the street from 1999-2010. Since that neighborhood institution opened in 1957, it was a restaurant known for its hearty meals and reasonable prices. Rachel, who got her start at that diner, now owns Perks Cafe on Pender Street (currently undergoing renovation). After the mother-daughter duo took ownership at the Ovaltine, they hired restaurateurs Theo Lloyd Kohls and Corben Winfield to manage the restaurant and bring innovation to the evening service and drinks menu.
I did not intend for my interviews with Grace and Rachel to be read as a restaurant review. Rather, I wanted my conversations with them to serve as a means of exploring their vision for this project, at this fascinating point in time, in this changing community. I can say from my experience that they serve wholesome, good quality food at reasonable prices. Their homemade milkshakes are decadently delicious—if you ask, they'll even spike them with alcohol.
An earlier interview with Grace vanished due to human error (mine) and Grace referred me to Rachel on the second go round. On the one hand, Rachel's genial, articulate conversation and her obvious admiration for her mother was a boost; on the other, I was left with a sense of mystery regarding Grace, who has a degree in psychology and a passion for study, in addition to her other gifts.
Some of these questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Megaphone: How has the evening service performed compared to what you would like it to be?
Rachel: “I think people are still not used to us being open for the evening. It used to be a 24-hour diner, and then it was closed [in the evening] for such a long period of time that people are still adjusting to the fact that we are open late.
“So that was the big challenge to get the word out, to let people know and get people outside the neighbourhood to be comfortable enough to walk down the block and come here. It is a little intimidating if you're just kind of exploring out and you have the street vendors on the side and whatnot. People kind of take a step back, but once they get past that and come in and try the food and hang out and get the atmosphere, it's quite nice.”
People come for the wooden booths, for the scratched-up walls and the old style.
Megaphone: You were working with your mom at the Save On Meats Diner.
Rachel: “I grew up in there. [Laughs].”
Megaphone: In real estate (and restaurants), location is everything. What can you say about this location?
Rachel: “I think this location is—I'm not going to say at a cross-point —it's an interesting location because across the street is Chinatown, down the block is the Downtown Eastside, behind us we've got Gastown and Railtown and then we have Strathcona to the other side. So we're kind of in the middle. Some people ask us where we're located [laughs]. I just say, “Corner of Main and Hastings!” But I think [about] the age of the restaurant. [It's been open] since 1942. The older generation, when they come down here, they still have that childhood memory.
“It is a challenge to be where we are location-wise but I think it will get better. Once people outside come in, they see that it's not that scary, that people are really nice and friendly. Everyone has their stories. I think it's a great location, great chances to improve, and get better. With the neighbourhood getting better, the location is doing well.”
Megaphone: Although that question of “better” is controversial, because some people say better is gentrification.
Rachel: “That's not what I meant. I meant just better. I don't think gentrification is making things better necessarily. When I say better, I mean better as in people accepting this neighbourhood and the outside neighbourhood, when people come from Chilliwack, New West, whatever, and they sit down and they sit next to our neighbour from upstairs and they realize these are not scary, horrifying people.
“They have their stories but they're just nice people. They'll say ‘Hi’ to you, and (visitors) are surprised that they'll walk in the door and they'll say ‘Hi, Grace. How are you?’ And my mom knows what they want, and it's more a family and a community feel than what the outside feels like. That's what I mean when I say better.”
Megaphone: You and Grace have already shown a strong commitment to the community at Save on Meats. So how does that translate into this project?
Rachel: “Right off the bat my mom wanted to make things affordable. During her more than 10 years at Save On Meats she only raised [the price by] 50 cents [we laugh]. And that is me literally telling her, “You can't keep doing this, otherwise you're not making any money. You have bills to pay too.” So the top priority for [Grace] here was to make things affordable and good quality.
“Other than that, she wanted to make it feel welcoming to the neighbourhood and that's why we didn't go and renovate it and make it really modern and hip.
“This is what it is. People come for the wooden booths, for the scratched-up walls and the old style. She wanted to keep everything homey and comfortable and make it welcome to everybody. Or else if the people get intimidated they walk right out.”
Megaphone: Here's a question for both of you. I had an earlier conversation with Grace about her degree in psychology and her desire to study more English. How does working so hard impact your personal growth and your dreams for the future?
Rachel: “Take something as simple as taking a family vacation. It's extremely difficult. We have a very small family,but we hadn't celebrated Chinese New Year together for over 12 or 13 years. That happened three years ago when [Grace] sold Save On and took some vacation and we all went back and we had our first get together, our small group. And that's something we looked forward to ever since we came to Canada. One parent's here; one parent's there. We're working. It's not like Christmas where everyone gets a couple of days off, but Chinese New Year is our Christmas and that has definitely been very difficult.
“[Grace] is not worried about the money she's not going to make that day [Chinese New Year]. She's worried about the customers, the usual [people] that come in. ‘Well, what are they going to eat?! I have John, I have Mike, I have this and that that come in.’ You know, they come in for breakfast. They sit down. She knows their order. She brings their order. They know how much it is.
“And she says, ‘If I go, where are they going to go? They come every day. They're not going to eat that day.’ So it has been hard. Even me going through school graduations and milestones, it was very hard for her to pick one or the other. I can understand, she hasa lot on her shoulders. You kind of just fight through it and eventually you get used to it. [Laughs again].”
This community is not just a community, it's a family. And especially we see families where they come with the parents and the grandparents and they say, “We used to come with our parents to eat here.” And you see families where they stay here generation after generation.
Megaphone: Megaphone has over 3,000 readers who are (often) focusing on this community, so what would you say to them about your experience in this community?
Rachel: “It is a very welcoming community and it has a very family sense. People look out for each other. People are very friendly and very generous. They're not as scary as what anyone else says. I think it's a great neighbourhood that you don't see in a lot of other parts of the town, where you're isolated in your perfect world, in your penthouse with your perfect family, but here everyone has their stories and I think that's what brings everyone together, because they have that understanding of where you were and how you came to here and I think that makes it a big difference.
“This community is not just a community, it's a family. And especially we see families where they come with the parents and the grandparents and they say, “We used to come with our parents to eat here.” And you see families where they stay here generation after generation.
It's heartwarming that people are so connected to each other and so willing to help. [Different] than in the ‘perfect world.’”