Irish Sean Heather’s Gift for Gab

How Sean Heather leveraged ?a passion for socializing into a successful restaurant ?career. There’s nothing Sean Heather loves more than to while away the hours chatting over coffee or a few drinks. The problem is, he’s also a workaholic. Fortunately for him, he’s forged a successful career that manages to combine his passions for both socializing and working.?

Sean Heather got his start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher in London, at the tender age of 13.

How Sean Heather leveraged 
a passion for socializing into a successful restaurant 

There’s nothing Sean Heather loves more than to while away the hours chatting over coffee or a few drinks. The problem is, he’s also a workaholic. Fortunately for him, he’s forged a successful career that manages to combine his passions for both socializing and working.

With four kids under the age of eight, and running half a dozen restaurants, the 44-year-old restaurateur has no time for idle chat. But call it work, and he’s got all the time in the world to swap stories.

The best part of his job, he says, is visiting the cheesemongers and delicatessens that supply his restaurants. “With the kind of relationship I’ve built up with these guys, you can’t just go in and grab stuff,” he explains. “You sit down and have a Turkish coffee with the Serbs in the JN&Z Deli, or you have some porchetta with the Italians up at Moccia and you sit and eat a crusty roll and you talk politics or whatever.”

Fortunately for BCBusiness, media interviews also qualify as work, so I’m treated to a first-hand taste of Heather’s natural affinity for storytelling. We settle in for a chat at the long table in the cellar of Gastown’s Salt Tasting Room – tantalizing sausages and cheeses displayed behind glass in the walk-in cooler behind me – as Heather spins one yarn after another in captivating inflections that combine his father’s Irish brogue with a Newfoundland drawl inherited from his mother.

Heather got hooked on the restaurant business early in life. Born in Toronto, he moved to Limerick City, Ireland, with his family at age four, and at age 13 spent a summer working as a dishwasher in London. He recalls flying back to Limerick after three months of work wearing a leather jacket that he’d bought himself with 800 pounds sewn into the lining for safekeeping. “I learned very quickly the value of money,” he says. “My friends would have to ask their parents if they could go on a school trip; I’d just tell mine I was going because I could pay for it myself.”

He spent each summer in London, then moved there after high school to pursue a career in restaurants. When he returned to Canada in 1995, Heather landed in Vancouver with the intention of earning enough money to finance a trip to Berkeley, where he hoped to work with Alice Waters, a pioneer in the local-food movement. However, he soon realized that the only way to get ahead in the restaurant business would be to work for himself. So together with his wife Erin and sister Roisin, he opened the Irish Heather in 1997. He worked behind the bar five nights a week, pouring pints for his regulars, while his wife served tables and his sister worked weekends.

After a couple of years, Heather found himself at a crossroads. “I can’t expand the business or be a dad if I’m going to be tending bar five nights a week,” he explains. So he made the difficult decision to remove himself from day-to-day operations, a decision to this day he feels compelled to justify: “I got a lot of flak from some of the regulars, but look at what we’re doing – it’s not like I’m sitting around driving a Mercedes and going on vacation. They don’t have to look very hard to see me working and see the results of it.”

His next step was Shebeen Whisky House, which opened in 2000, and then the Salty Tongue Café in 2003. After opening Salt to widespread critical acclaim in 2006, Heather’s expansion efforts went into overdrive: Fetch, a coffee kiosk in the old B.C. Electric building at Carrall and Hastings streets, opened in 2009; Judas Goat, a Spanish-style tapas bar next door to Salt, as well as Chinatown coffee shop Everything Café and the Pennsylvania Hotel bakery, all opened in 2010. Up next: Bitter, a beer-tasting house, to open on Hastings Street opposite Pigeon Park this August.

Heather owns most of his businesses, while Bob Rennie’s Rennie Marketing Systems has a stake in Everything Café, and business partner Scott Hawthorne is part-owner of Salt and Judas Goat, and is also a partner in Bitter.

Heather is not hell-bent on growth at any cost, but prefers to expand as finances allow. “My mentality is if we can’t do it out of cash flow, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it at all because I hate the notion of over-extending,” he explains.

And each new opening has been guided by that lesson he learned early in life about the value of every dollar. When he sat down to plan Salt, for example, he made every decision with calculator in hand. He realized that doing away with a kitchen that requires a grease trap and hood fan would not only reduce equipment costs, but would also reduce permitting fees, shaving a total of about $50,000 from startup costs. Not only that, but sticking strictly to cold appetizers he could do the same volume as other restaurants while saving the $50,000 annual operating expense of a chef. 

Today as a young father and budding entrepreneur, Heather is at the eye of a whirlwind. He describes a typical day that begins with getting up at 6:30 a.m. to take his son to school and includes visiting his restaurants and suppliers, and meeting with architects to go over plans for Bitter. For this latest venture he hired himself as project manager (“I’m there all the time anyway; I may as well pay myself to be there as opposed to paying somebody else to manage it for me”). He often finds himself sitting up at four in the morning, bouncing a baby on his knee while he responds to emails.

Yet Heather is clearly in his element, and wouldn’t have it any other way. “To envision a time when I won’t be as involved … I don’t know what that would be,” he says. “This is me. It doesn’t get any better than this and it doesn’t get any worse than this. This is what I do.”