The Commercial Drive food empire that pledges to do business differently

Doug Stephen and team are hoping to keep their many endeavours growing.

Commercial Drive

Credit: Rich Won

Doug Stephen and team are hoping to keep their many endeavours growing

There aren’t many people like Doug Stephen. At least, I haven’t met many in over a decade covering various industries in the province. And there definitely aren’t many people doing what he’s doing. Fair enough—there aren’t really enough hours in the day for it.

Stephen (along with his partners Lindsay Mann and Zach Wilcox) started things out with DownLow Chicken Shack, the universally beloved, consensus best-in-Vancouver fried chicken outpost on Commercial Drive in June 2018. They followed that up with DownLow Burgers, which they serve out of Main Street’s The American, and then proceeded to come back to the Drive with Vennie’s Sub Shop and Drive Canteen, a convenience store with hard-to-find and delicious made-in-house products like glizzies (hot dogs), perfect nacho bites, ice cream sundaes and soda pop.

Every day, it feels like Stephen is expanding on his empire, including recently when he and his team held an event announcing additions to the Drive Canteen in a new back patio and a secret thrift shop downstairs that he hopes will hold different art events.

Drive Canteen is already one of the more unique places in the city and Stephen, a massive sneakerhead, has only amped that up, with a wall of rare sneakers and products like Oreo cereal that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

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But bigger plans persist. Stephen has been able to expand even with the craziness that is Vancouver real estate, but he knows he might not be able to keep it up forever. He’d like to bring DownLow Chicken to other cities in Canada and wants to do it with a different franchise model. “I don’t plan on selling the rights to anyone that’s not an employee at one of our locations,” says Stephen.

“To have our name and our brand, you have to get what we’re doing here, too. I want franchisees to be able to bring that same environment to their employees and their customers.”

He’s also kept true to some values that have gotten him here. His sundaes are made with in-house chocolate syrup that’s time consuming and expensive to produce, but he suffices that it’s better than using the only option on the market in Nestle.

Living right off Commercial with a young child, the kids in the surrounding neighbourhood are important to Stephen as well. “They come in here and check out the sneakers or candy or whatever,” he says. “They can hang out here, I know a bunch of them now.”

Not many massive Canadian franchises were started by someone who, by his own admission, comes up with his ideas, “thanks to smoking a lot of weed.” But it’s also what makes Stephen and his restaurants such a great fit for the area.

“We care about it here,” he insists. “We want to give back to this community and we’re trying to do that with all these different things. I’m here pretty much every day and I just love it.”