For fourteen years, Chef Pierre LePage owned his own food services business here in Yellowknife. What started as a one-pub partnership turned into a giant business with everything from catering to kitchen materials to French cuisine and fresh bread. The business has come to an end now but this not the story of Pierre’s demise; it is the story of his ventures into northern businesses.
I never imagined I would be chatting with Pierre in his home but the setting seemed to show a more relaxed, less formal side of him. Copper pots hang from the middle of the kitchen, a wine rack in one corner, endless spices on the counter and little pieces of paper with notes and reminders scattered around. It truly felt like the home of a chef..
You could say my timing was either really good, or really bad when I asked Pierre if I could sit down with him. It had only been a couple of days since he shut his doors. For years I had known who Pierre was; I had heard the good and the bad, but it wasn’t until last fall that I really got to know the man. My house is only a couple of blocks from the Le Frolic building and I’ve spent my fair share of time there. As I got to know Pierre better he helped me with my bread-making endeavours.
Like many people in Yellowknife, I wanted to know more about Chef Pierre’s story. Why did he come to Yellowknife? How did he end up with so many businesses? What did he really want out of it all? I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask him..
If you ever read Chef Pierre’s first website, it described how he went from his home province of Quebec to France to study to become a chef and where he stayed for a number of years afterwards. Early in his career he traveled all around the world, working in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Seattle and Chicago. He had opened a wholesale bakery shop in Whistler, BC and even rebuilt it after it burned down.
That’s when everything changed. Pierre was in a serious car accident in the early 90’s, which left him with a broken neck and mangled elbow. He was not able to work.
The broken neck paralyzed one side of his body. He showed me the scar on the back of his neck where the surgeons had to go in and repair him in order for him to regain movement. Even after twenty years, the scar is still very prominent. This did however give him the opportunity to go travelling again and during his travels was the first time he came across Yellowknife. He could have picked anywhere for his next adventure in life, but like many us who come north, he saw it as his next frontier. He’d never been and said to himself, “why not?”
Pierre recounted his first memories of Yellowknife and with a bit of disgust on his face, “I wanted to leave the next day.” He had arrived on a Sunday evening flight and nothing in town was open. He wanted something to eat, but there was no A&W or Boston Pizza or Pubs open. It was a Sunday in Yellowknife in the early 90’s.
He stuck it out though and helped transform the Yellowknife Inn, who had brought him up to Yellowknife, but quit shortly thereafter to take over the Parachute Club, which was located in the Centre Square Mall on 51st Street. Pierre quickly renamed the establishment Broadway on 51st and gave it a fresh feel. It only lasted a year or so before it went downhill and Pierre got out of the restaurant business altogether. He didn’t tell me why he got out of the restaurant businesses but seemed very proud about his time as a communications sales rep, selling sat phone and radios.
In 1999, after a very successful run as a communications sales rep, Pierre and his business partner had the money to buy into, what was then, The Unicorn Pub. They closed the pub for one week, redecorated the walls, put up new blinds and reopened as Le Frolic.
Le Frolic had a modest start. It wasn’t like the other pubs in town, nor did Pierre have that vision for it, it didn’t have massive lineups right away or your average pub food. He wanted it to be a quieter establishment, with finer food. It took some time for Yellowknifers to see that vision but noted he saw a change in his customers. Yellowknife was shifting from a mining town to corporate city. As the diamond mines were being built, business people were coming in from England, Africa and Australia to do work and he was catering to them.
For the next ten years the business continued to grow. After the no smoking by-law was put in place he opened the first Le Stock Pot as a kitchen supply store to help sustain Le Frolic because customers who smoked were not going out as much. During this time a friend asked Pierre to cater his party and so his catering business was born.
His first big catering gig was meant to be the Prospects North Conference, which started the day after 9/11. Needless to say it didn’t go as planned as only half the attendees made it to town. However when two airliners were grounded in Yellowknife because of 9/11, Pierre was able to step up to the plate and feed the stranded passengers.
Pierre laughed when he recalled early memories of catering out of the Le Frolic building “customers might remember we’d make a human chain from the kitchen upstairs, down the stairs, through Le Frolic and out the back door. And then we’d do it all over again at the end of the night.”
By 2007, Chef Pierre Catering was working out of a bigger kitchen at Le Stock Pot and was awarded the 2008 Arctic Winter Games contract. Pierre and his team were going to feed the delegates, organizers and volunteers breakfast, lunch and dinner in the facility that would later become Nico’s Market.
Having never talked about that rise and fall of the niche grocery store with Pierre, I wasn’t sure how he’d feel discussing it but his tone was still up beat and he didn’t hesitate. He almost sounded excited about it, as if the dream of the grocery store with a restaurant above still existed.
Nico’s Market wasn’t an off-the-cuff decision; the planning for the market started even before the Arctic Winter Games. When the games came around though, Pierre was imagining how the store might be configured, as he was delivering the meals.
I had to ask the question, was there a need in Yellowknife for a market that offered fresh produce, meats, cheeses and several different types of oils? Pierre’s response was simple, “I believed so.” He had seen the sales numbers from Le Stock Pot and saw the need to expand.
As Pierre got up from the table to light a cigarette on his deck we went off on a tangent about the mentality of business in North America, compared to business in Europe. In Europe they keep a business small, in the family, for generations. In North America we expand, grow and want to take on more. Pierre couldn’t put in words why he wanted to expand his businesses; he just saw it as the next step to take. It was his vision.
To him Nico’s Market and his new restaurant, which never opened, would have worked had it not been for the downturn of the economy and property hurdles he had to try to overcome. The restaurant would thrive off the store and visa-versa. To keep stock moving in the grocery store, he would cater his restaurant menu to what wasn’t being sold as fast. This would in turn provided Yellowknifers with quality products. The reality was that one could not survive without the other.
The opening of Nico’s Market was delayed and didn’t open until January 2010. “The worst time to open anything,” said Pierre to me. So by opening right after Christmas and still having to pay the rent for an empty restaurant things were going downhill.
After only having the market open for a short period of time, Pierre was forced to pull the plug, it was costing too much and he was going further and further into debt because of the empty restaurant. So he made the decision to go under financial protection with certain requirements and a personal guarantee he would pay it off the debt, just so that he could scale back and keep some of the businesses.
Fast-forward two and a half years later; with a tired look in his face, Pierre said he just couldn’t do it anymore. Despite having staff helping him, he was still working 16 hours a day non-stop to keep the business moving. Catering in the morning, Le Frolic at lunch, wholesale deliveries in the afternoon and working Le Frolic again until 11pm, all on top of having to take care of the administrative portions of the businesses themselves. He recounted a previous injury with his elbow that flared up again after continuously loading and unloading bread racks in his trucks. “I’m worn out, my body can’t keep up…” he says trailing off.
“It was my own stubbornness that stopped me from going bankrupt,” he said, referring to seeking financial protection. “Had I gone bankrupt then, I wouldn’t be as bad off now.”
The interest on the mortgage was accumulating faster than he could pay it off. “I was never paying myself” he said, “we’d make sure payroll was covered and then pay what bills we could.” The highlight for the last two and a half years for Pierre was when he worked as a server at Le Frolic. “I use to get a little tip money each night that I could use for smokes or a nice meal out but that was it.”
Our time together was coming to an end and I had one last question: What’s next for Chef Pierre?
“I tore apart the shower in my house six years ago, I need to finish that project,” he told me with a bit of sarcasm in his voice. With the business though, he didn’t really know what would happen next, he says he is just going to let the banks figure it out now. In a stern voice he said, “What else am I going to lose? I don’t know.”
Because I myself am so passionately driven by food, I wanted to know if Pierre was still interested in cooking, never mind starting another business. He said “if someone wants to hire me to help them set up a food service business then I will, just as long as I get a pay cheque at the end of the week”
I see Pierre in a different light now. I still see a businessman who took risks some of which didn’t turn out, but now I can see his passion and drive, his willingness to admit his own mistakes and learn from them. The lessons that I have learned from Pierre, other than how to make better bread, are to be humble with what you have and don’t try to expand to quickly. While going bigger and pulling in more money is nice, it is not everything. Most of all enjoy what you do.
Whether you liked him or not, Pierre strived to offer high quality food and products through all of his establishments. This is not something Yellowknife is often known for. The food and desire to offer a great products and service will surely be missed.