Canadian Pizza Magazine

A Closer Look at Nook

Brandi Cowen   

Features Profiles

This little restaurant is making a big impact in Vancouver’s west end

Two years ago, Mike Jeffs and Nicole Welsh’s landlord offered them
additional space in the building where they already operated a
successful tapas restaurant.

Two years ago, Mike Jeffs and Nicole Welsh’s landlord offered them additional space in the building where they already operated a successful tapas restaurant. The pair seized the opportunity to bring something new in pizza to Vancouver’s food scene.

MikeJeffsNook 
Mike Jeffs minds the kitchen at Nook, a successful Vancouver tapas restaurant. Photo: Michelle Vella


 

Thanks to Jeffs and Walsh, the city now has Nook, a 32-seat antipasto bar on Denman Street. Occupying just 1,090 square feet, the restaurant offers 18 menu items, including six pizza options.

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Jeffs calls signing up for the space an “impulse decision,” but, he explains, “Nook is one of those things. I didn’t know if it would work because it’s very small, but it was something that I wanted to do.”

He admits that he didn’t think too far ahead when planning for the restaurant – he created the menu in just 15 minutes, and has stuck to it ever since – but this approach has worked well for Nook.

“It’s a real simple little restaurant. We focus on what we can do, and what we can do well,” Jeffs explains. “If you want one of our six pizzas or one of our six pastas or one of our six antipasto, then this is the place for you. If you’re looking for more choices than that, this isn’t the place for you.”

This simplicity is a necessity, due to Nook’s small size. But it also reflects Jeffs’ changing attitude towards managing a kitchen. “I’m not interested in running around like an 18-year-old line cook anymore,” he says. “Thirty seats is just the perfect amount. You’re never in trouble, you can do a really good job and if you get 30 seats all at once, it’s not the end of the world.”

The experience of serving a smaller number of diners has been so positive that when Jeffs and Welsh decided to close their sister restaurant Tapastree and reopen as an Italian restaurant under the name Tavola, they tried to cut down on the amount of seating offered. But Jeffs says the 2,000-square-foot space looked “ridiculous” with just 50 seats. In the end, they went with a 65-seat dining area, which, he admits, can be a lot to handle.

If Jeffs had his way, he would “never open a restaurant with more than 30 seats again.”

A GOOD REPUTATION
Being able to set up shop in a neighbourhood where they already had a successful restaurant with a solid reputation was a major advantage for Jeffs and Welsh. They opened Tapastree, a tapas restaurant offering cuisine with both international and west coast influence, in 1997. The pair spent the next 12 years establishing a reputation for quality fare and excellent service at a reasonable price. By the time Nook was ready to open its doors in May 2009, the entrepreneurial duo were well known in Vancouver’s west end.

Jan25NookProfilePZ-Interior2 
A well-designed small space can provide big room for social fun. Photo: Michelle Vella


 

“It was a lot easier for us to open up than it would have been for any other person to open up in the neighbourhood. There’s virtually nobody who’s been down here longer than us, and we have a good reputation,” Jeffs says. “We didn’t have to do any advertising or marketing. We opened our doors and we’ve had a lineup ever since.”

Between 75 and 100 diners come through those doors every night. On a very busy night, that number may reach as high as 160. Many of those customers are regulars. Jeffs estimates that he and his staff know more than three-quarters of the people they serve on any given night.

Nook’s small size and community atmosphere has gone a long way towards building a base of loyal, regular customers, but it’s the food that keeps them coming back again and again. The pizza menu includes pies topped with salami and olives; prosciutto, arugula and roasted garlic; Italian sausage, chilies and sweet onions; ricotta, roasted tomatoes, olives, onions and garlic; and anchovies, olives and chilies. Rounding out the pizza offerings is a margherita pie.

Regardless of what they order, customers know they’re being served quality ingredients. The kitchen uses salamis from a local sausage maker, Oyama Sausage Company, and buffalo mozzarella from a Vancouver Island farm that raises its own meat.

Such high quality can be pricey, but the way Jeffs sees it, that’s no reason to settle for inferior ingredients. “It’s my theory: the flour and water theory,” he explains. “When flour and water are the bulk of your product, you can afford to put really good things on top. That is the secret to what we do: we use the very best ingredients you can use.”

Working with quality ingredients is also a key component of Jeffs’ mission for Nook. At the end of the night, he wants customers to walk away feeling they “have had a good time and some tasty food, and that’s it. Once again, it’s a simple place with simple goals.”

Nook’s story so far has been an unusual one, filled with spur of the moment decisions and challenges imposed by a small operating space. But at the end of the day, Jeffs believes that those factors are integral to the restaurant’s success.

“Left to my own devices, it probably wouldn’t have worked out like that. If I could have had everything my way, it would have been a lot harder and it probably wouldn’t be as great as it is,” he reflects. “It worked out and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

 4 tips for building a good reputation

  1. Identify what you can do well, then do it well every time.
  2. Keep it simple. A simple dish done extraordinarily well is more impressive than an extraordinary dish done poorly.
  3. Be realistic about what you can manage. More seats mean more room for customers, but unless you can consistently deliver excellent food and service, seats will go unfilled.
  4. Use quality ingredients. Customers will notice and be willing to pay for them.


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