Two Economies, One Province: Railtown Cafe and FortisBC light it up

Vancouver's Railtown Cafe saves money by powering its kitchens with FortisBC natural gas from the province's northeast

Credit: Courtesy of Railtown Cafe

As Railtown Cafe grew, much of the business converted to natural gas

Vancouver’s Railtown Cafe saves money by powering its kitchens with FortisBC natural gas from the province’s northeast

When Dan Olson launched Railtown Cafe with fellow chef Tyler Day in 2012, the premises they took over ran on electricity. As their Vancouver restaurant and catering business grew to four locations, the pair switched to natural gas from FortisBC—not just for stovetops but for convection ovens, water heating and any equipment that doesn’t need electric power. “Right now I’m buying everything I can natural gas,” Olson says.

Olson, who employs some 200 full- and part-time staff at Railtown Cafe and Railtown Catering, estimates that running equipment on natural gas costs him about a quarter of what he spent on hydro. “When we were just a simple café doing $1 million a year, we had 15 employees, and the difference between gas and electricity wasn’t that much,” he says. “But now that we’re growing, it makes a huge difference over the course of the four locations.”

Cost isn’t the only reason for the switch. “The gas-powered equipment that we’re buying, it has a more consistent temperature throughout so that there’s no hot spots in the ovens,” explains Olson, who says many of his peers are following suit. Purchasing high-efficiency convection ovens and deep fryers gets Railtown a big rebate from FortisBC, he adds. 

In the Lower Mainland and other parts of the province, FortisBC has more than 1 million natural gas customers, says Cynthia Des Brisay, vice-president, midstream services. About 80 percent of the gas used by clients such as Railtown comes from northeast B.C., where cities like Dawson Creek and Fort St. John depend on the energy sector. 

A delivery company, FortisBC doesn’t produce natural gas or own any reserves, Des Brisay notes. The BC Chamber of Commerce member buys most of its gas from a market hub in the northeast called Station 2. From there, FortisBC transports the gas to its service territory via Enbridge Inc.’s BC Pipeline transmission system. To supply the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, the company connects with the pipeline at Huntingdon, near Abbotsford.

But as Des Brisay points out, the BC Pipeline system also hooks up with the Northwest Pipeline, which serves the Interstate 5 corridor all the way south to Portland. “About 70 per cent of the gas that’s consumed or burned there is also coming from northeastern B.C.”

The average annual load on FortisBC’s system is roughly 350,000 gigajoules a day, Des Brisay says—almost 332 million cubic feet of natural gas. Over the winter, that tally climbs to 600,000 gigajoules daily, versus 200,000 during summer. Overall, demand has stayed relatively flat for the past few years, a trend that Des Brisay attributes to more energy-efficient appliances and building codes. “Although we’re continuing to add customers to our system, we see that those customers on average are using less,” she says. “And that’s a good thing.”

For restaurateur Olson, it looks like more natural gas is on the menu. As Railtown has opened locations in new buildings that offer both electricity and gas, the company has saved by negotiating higher usage of the latter in its leases. “This city is tough enough to earn a buck in,” Olson says. “You scrape by every way you possibly can so that you’re taking something down to the bottom line, or else what’s the point?”