“This has really been a family affair,” says Kal Suurkask of Tug Eatery, the Victoria harbour-view restaurant he opened in June.
Sarah Parsons, Suurkask’s partner in life and business, is Tug’s general manager. Credit Suurkask’s parents with planting and nurturing the lush and colourful floral and vegetable gardens that wind around two spacious patios. His sister and brother both pitched in with everything from recycling runs to maintenance. And friends have come on board to staff the restaurant.
Opening his first restaurant in the midst of a global pandemic came with plenty of challenges but Suurkask, 40, has realistic expectations. An entrepreneur who specializes in developing companies, he’s in this for the long haul.
Suurkask has a multi-year plan for Tug that includes starting small and asking customers for honest feedback. The limited menu puts an emphasis on wallet-friendly prices, a smart plan during challenging economic times.
Live music was recently added two nights a week. Jazz Sundays and Acoustic Tuesdays include plenty of room for physical distancing. When COVID-19 restrictions ease, Tug’s menu will expand, Suurkask says, and so will community-based events and experiences like an outdoor oyster bar. He wants Tug to be known for creativity in the arts.
Chef Clayton Mccoll runs the kitchen, making west-coast comfort dishes with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Cook Ava Cairns-Locke, formerly of Victoria’s much-loved Crust Bakery, also bakes Tug’s bread, including sourdough made with 122-year-old starter from Yukon.
Given Tug’s location in the Mermaid Wharf building, I went with a local theme when I had lunch on the 1,500-square-foot patio. A glass of blue-green Mermaid Tears kombucha from Babe’s Honey Farm in nearby Blenkinsop Valley paired well with Mermaid Sushi Pockets ($13), sweet-savoury Inari-aged tofu pouches stuffed with a square of lightly sauced sushi rice, seared albacore tuna and dressed with wasabi mayonnaise. And as a bonus, the nearby Johnson Street Bridge lifted to allow a ship to pass, which was fun to watch.
Named in part for the colourful pickle boats that scoot around Victoria Harbour, Tug is located at the foot of Swift Street, a short walk from Chinatown, and close to a number of popular food and drink businesses. A wall of windows inside the restaurant overlooks the harbour and that immense patio, which has more than double the space of the dining room. About half of the patio will be enclosed with a heated tent this winter, allowing patrons to continue to dine outside.
Suurkask says the best compliment he hears is when guests say the gardens feel like home.
The restaurant follows strict safety protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Diners’ names are taken at the door for contact tracing, tables are well spaced, servers wear masks, and guest numbers are limited.
Suurkask owns the restaurant space, as well as three ground-level condos beside it, including one that he and Parsons call home.
Tug’s space was previously a nightclub and later used as offices. When Suurkask purchased the property, he turned it into an event space. Most recently, it housed another restaurant that closed after COVID-19 struck. Rather than try to lease to another restaurant at such a difficult time, or see it sit empty, Suurkask and Parsons decided to launch Tug, which opened June 15.
He admits he had a lot of doubts about the timing of the venture. Friends even advised against it.
“It wasn’t about the financial aspect of it. It was more about, ‘Wow, this is a lot of work,’” he says. Suurkask spent the first few months doing everything from bartending to cleaning bathrooms.
He had no prior restaurant experience and Parsons comes from the financial service industry. But his skills in building businesses dovetails well with the restaurant industry.
“As much as there are so many moving parts [with a restaurant], the foundations, the business principles are the same,” he says. “People and then processes. That’s all it is. Putting systems in place and then really dealing with people, whether they’re your employees, your vendors, or your guests.”
The restaurant’s focus is “a really good community experience with really good food.” Staff is trained to put hospitality first, Suurkask says. “Your staff engagement has to be perfect. It really does.”
The restaurant has been in soft-launch mode since the doors opened. “We did no marketing at all. Zero, no social media, maybe one post,” Suurkask says. “And that was done deliberately because it was a bit of a hedge in some ways, to be frank. Let’s test out our systems, let’s test out our operations, let’s test out our menu, even our staff.”
“I absolutely love Victoria,” Suurkask says. “I’ve lived around the world, but something draws me back to Victoria all the time and so I’m very happy to actually be part of that. To have a restaurant now gives me a real substance, something there that I can go back to and be proud of.”
MORE ABOUT TUG EATERY
Address: 407 Swift Street, Unit 100, Victoria, BC (see map below)
Menu Price Range: No menu item exceeds $20 and options include pub favourites with unique twists, such as a Seaside Sliders ($15), prepared with albacore tuna and avocado. Happy hour runs weekedays from 3-5 p.m. The craft-beer list includes a variety of choices from Vancouver Island.
Editor’s Note: Kal Suurkask, the proprietor of Tug Eatery, and Vacay.ca Founder and Editor Adrian Brijbassi are business partners in ventures outside of operations for both Tug and Vacay.ca.