This female-led B.C. restaurant plans to uplift women and reinvent the business

Who launches a restaurant during a pandemic? If that sounds like a crazy idea, Elizabeth Mah, Melissa Steacy and Kelly Ann Woods should convince you otherwise. The three partners will open Cordelia's Locket, a downtown Squamish café, wine bar and pantry, in May. Besides offering career opportunities to women who have been left jobless and time-strapped by coronavirus outbreak, the female-led enterprise will take a new approach to running a restaurant, drawing on lessons learned from COVID...

Credit: Courtesy of Locket Hospitality

Locket Hospitality partners Elizabeth Mah (left), Kelly Ann Woods and Melissa Steacy

Cordelia’s Locket in Squamish will pursue a new model that benefits from post-pandemic hindsight, its three partners say

Who launches a restaurant during a pandemic? If that sounds like a crazy idea, Elizabeth Mah, Melissa Steacy and Kelly Ann Woods should convince you otherwise.

The three partners will open Cordelia’s Locket, a downtown Squamish café, wine bar and pantry, in May. Besides offering career opportunities to women who have been left jobless and time-strapped by coronavirus outbreak, the female-led enterprise will take a new approach to running a restaurant, drawing on lessons learned from COVID.

Woods, one of our 2020 Women of the Year winners, is no stranger to the hospitality industry. A veteran sommelier, she co-founded Gillespie’s Fine Spirits, which set up shop in what is now her hometown of Squamish in 2014.

Before Cordelia’s Locket, she already had a lot on her plate. The founder and CEO of Brujera Elixirs makes Boozewitch, a brand of sober-curious mixers for cocktails and mocktails. She also recently debuted the State B line of functional beverages, some of which contain cannabis.

“I didn’t plan on opening a restaurant while I was launching a massive North American brand,” Woods jokes. “It was almost like I slipped on a banana peel.”

What’s now called Cordelia’s Locket began when Woods went looking for a place in Squamish to house the Boozewitch line. “The most cost-effective space that I could find just happened to be an oceanfront location in a new development,” she says. “So I was like, OK, well, this makes sense fiscally, but I need to put something out front.”

Mah, founder of Vancouver-based Paperclip Law, is Woods’ attorney for State B. She also does a bit of investing, so she came to check out what is now Cordelia’s Locket. “We took a walk from one end of the boardwalk to the other and came back and decided to go into business together,” Woods says. “It just happened.”

They then enlisted Steacy, who had been working as Woods’ assistant. “As we started to go, Melissa had jumped on board, but our whole mandate was about uplifting women,” Woods says. “And so I told Elizabeth that I thought it would not be part of our mandate if we didn’t invite Melissa to be a partner.”

Besides putting up their own money, the partners in Locket Hospitality did a raise with equity crowdfunding platform Equivesto that gathered almost $30,000. “We decided to go that route from the beginning just because we wanted to get the community engagement,” Woods says.

Asked about the restaurant’s name, everyone laughs. The trio wanted to honour the witch that is clearly visible on the Stawamus Chief, but they also wanted something that felt magical—and feminine without putting off men, Woods says. “The three witches of Eastwick and all those kinds of feelings, we went with it. We’re businesswomen; we’re very on point and on task, but we allow a little bit of the mysticism and the flow of energy.”

If Cordelia is a classic witch moniker, “locket” suggests something that can open up in other places, Woods says. “There’s a certain class to a locket—the memories that it holds, the beauty that it holds, the love that it holds.”

Credit: Courtesy of Locket Hospitality

The view from outside Cordelia’s Locket

A restaurant built for COVID and beyond

And why Squamish?

Over the past few years, the district municipality has transformed from somewhere people stopped for gas on their way to Whistler to its own tourism destination, says Steacy, who is also a resident. “And the community itself is looking for something that’s new and exciting,” she asserts. “Our location itself, everyone is absolutely stoked in the community because it’s different.” In a move that should be good for business, Squamish has approved a pedestrian bridge two blocks from the restaurant that will link to another new development.

It also helps that the pandemic has encouraged British Columbians to explore their backyard more, Woods says. “Not only has the community grown exponentially and people have higher earnings and so on and so forth, but also the people that are actually coming here on a regular basis to check out the town.”

COVID has shaped the restaurant’s business model, which is also ready for a post-pandemic world. To ensure that their establishment doesn’t just rely on diners, Mah, Steacy and Woods identified six other sources of revenue: catering and takeout, retail and corporate gifts, pantry and grocery, a club featuring online culinary classes and other offerings, tenants and office sharing, and events and rentals. “All the things that restaurants pivoted and decided to do as a response [to COVID], we’re going into it and doing it from the very beginning,” Woods says.

Businesswise, the pandemic has treated them well so far, Woods reports. “We’re kind of reaping some of the ways that things have fallen apart,” she says. “We get meetings with people easier because they’re more available. There’s a certain amount of tradespeople that are a little bit more available.” At the same time, restaurant and hotel closures have let the team scoop up furniture and kitchen appliances at bargain prices.

“So there’s a lot of momentum for us,” Woods says. “And then to open during COVID, one of the opportunities we have is that those systems are already in place, so we’re designing a restaurant based on the structure of a pandemic currently. And then instead of having to contract, as things become less pandemic-y we can expand into our truest sense.”

With social distancing in mind, Woods and her colleagues have installed a barbecue outdoors so the restaurant can cook there during the summer. “We’ve already talked to the director of planning about putting greenhouses out on the boardwalk as far as COVID-safe dining is concerned,” she says. “So we’re doing it the exact opposite way all of our colleagues in the hospitality business have done it.”

The partners have the benefit of hindsight, Mah observes. “I think the past year highlighted many of the things that were wrong in the industry,” she says, noting that some iconic local restaurants didn’t survive. “For me, it’s particularly rooted in the traditions of how they were built, and that the models of 20, 30, 40 years ago—hospitality largely remains exactly the same—won’t be able to weather the storm as well.”

Credit: Courtesy of Locket Hospitality

Can you spot the witch on the Stawamus Chief?

A new hiring model

Besides turning a profit, Mah, Steacy and Woods have made it their goal to help women return to work. Since last February, some 80,000 female workers have left the national labour force, according to Statistics Canada—more than triple the number of men. Meanwhile, women make up the majority of employees in hospitality, one of the sectors hit hardest by COVID.

Seeing that the pandemic has also left women shouldering the bulk of caregiving and homeschooling duties during lockdown, the partners asked what they could do to help. “Women are the first in line to step back into domestic roles, particularly with the way that COVID has happened, where everyone was forced back to their homes,” Mah says. “What we’re trying to do is allow them to still grow a career that is fulfilling as well as very complementary to their lifestyle at home.”

To that end, Cordelia’s Locket will give female employees the flexibility they need. Part of that is figuring out which tasks, such as ordering or scheduling, can be done remotely, Woods says. “How do we bring that into the hospitality model?”

Following the lead of restaurants in small communities, the business also aims to help staff avoid the service industry “rut,” Woods explains. “Where I grew up, there were restaurants where you were maybe the server but you love to bake, so you do all the chocolate cake,” she says. “You might be in the kitchen, but you do the schedule for the whole restaurant because you’re really organized. We’ve established it in such a way that not only are you going to be working as part of the major operations of the restaurant, either in the kitchen or on the floor, but what other contributions can you make?”

Getting people back to work calls for different approach to hiring, Woods maintains. “Maybe you’ve never served tables before, but it’s not rocket science,” she says. “We want you to come in and want to grow with the team and contribute to something and feel like you’re part of a team. Our mandate is definitely to support women in getting back into the workforce, but we wouldn’t turn down a man because he’s a man.”

Cordelia’s Locket—which will pay a living wage and provide benefits to anyone who works three shifts a week—is also looking at ways to support people with disabilities, Woods says. “It’s really about creating a different model and figuring out a way to support people that have been struggling through this whole thing that’s been happening to all of us.”

Welcome to YaleSquam

The property needed refurbishing, so the partners have been working with architect Ken Wong, who designed “our dream space,” Steacy says. Cordelia’s Locket, whose big windows will offer 180-degree views of the Stawamus Chief and the ocean, has a bar area and patio, plus a wine room that will serve as an entertaining and event space post-COVID.

There’s a really nice momentum among the building department and economic development and planning that they see what we’re doing and what kind of an offering it’s going to be for the community, not only for the creation of jobs but also as a tourist attraction,” Woods says.

“I call it YaleSquam because it feels pretty bougie,” she adds of the surrounding boardwalk area. “But it’s got that beautiful natural essence of the opening to Howe Sound and the mountains and the trees and everything else.”

And the menu? Woods and her partners watched the shift toward comfort food during the pandemic. “We call it home-style chic,” she says—for example, grazing boards and casserole with labneh. “Soul-filling comfort food, but kicked up a little notch.”

As they planned their restaurant, the partners also talked to Squamish economic development officer Kate Mulligan, who explained that the District is pushing for food sustainability and security. “We will become one of the anchor establishments in town,” Woods says of that effort. “We’ve already started working with them on what are the food maps on the Sea-to-Sky, what’s available, and how we can start to integrate all of those offerings within our program.”

Among the nearby suppliers they’ll rely on: Alpine Honey, Four Beat Farm, Mr. Bannock Indigenous Cuisine, Nutrient Dense Farm, Rising Knead Bakery, sauerkraut maker Alice Savage, Spray Creek Ranch and Stony Mountain Farm. Cordelia’s Locket is kitty corner to the Squamish Farmers’ Market, another source of ingredients. All of the flowers at the restaurant will come from Valley Buds Flower Farm, which is run by two women.

The female-focused wine list will feature bottles from women winemakers and women-owned wineries in the Okanagan and elsewhere, Woods says.

Vancouver-based Chef Claire, who consulted on the menu, helped control costs by ensuring that meals and ingredients—from cabbage rolls to mustard to scone mix—also appear in the retail section. “Everything works on top of everything,” Woods explains. “That part shouldn’t go away. That’s job creation; that’s brand creation. There’s a lot of really incredible things that have been born from COVID.”

As a result, the food will be affordable for those who might not have fared so well during the pandemic. “A lot of people are coming out of this not as wealthy as other people,” Woods says. “So we wanted to do something whereby someone who hasn’t killed it on the stock market or sold toilet paper…can come in and have a really nice meal.”

When Cordelia’s Locket opens its doors in May, it could be the first of several locations, Woods reckons. “We’re looking at creating this model here and making it successful,” she says, “but then opening other Lockets, like Abigail’s Locket or Maeve’s Locket, probably in different waterfront communities that have the same problem: women wanting to be in the workforce, but juggling and not wanting to be in a dead-end position.”

That expansion would bring equity share opportunities for staff, Woods says, plus the chance to take over ordering and other tasks for the entire group. “Sure, this is a wonderful way to make a little bit of money, but if you have a passion and a drive for a professional career, how do we support you in meeting that?”