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Fort Street Cafe landlord won't renew lease, forcing owners to draw curtain

Nov 01 2012
Benji Duke, owner of the Fort Street Cafe, will have to close shop as his landlord won't renew the lease. 

Benji Duke, owner of the Fort Street Cafe, will have to close shop as his landlord won't renew the lease.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , Times Colonist

The Fort Street Cafe is preparing to draw the final curtain after six years of serving food and showcasing the city's creative community.

The downtown-downstairs restaurant - known as much for its live shows, open stage and quizzes as its pasta, sandwiches and salads - will close for the final time Dec. 15.

"The landlord at the end of this lease decided it was no longer suitable for the premises and asked us to leave, for whatever reason," said Benji Duke, who ran the popular cafe with Jon Perkins and Melissa Byrnes. "It's the landlord's decision. He owns the building and it's his choice."

Duke said he's not dwelling on the whys and wherefores, but rather on "the positivity of what's come before and the possibility of what can happen in the future."

When reached, building owner Garnett Rancier declined to comment, though he mentioned the cafe owners were good people who made good food.

That goodwill and the memories will be about all the three owners have when they leave the premises in December.

"We've grown out of the walls of the cafe. The venue is a labour of love," said Duke. "We've crafted the room and built into the room and, unfortunately, we don't have a business to sell, and nothing to move really because the business is the room."

And while it's provided jobs for all three, and between 10 to 12 staff at any one time, the cafe became sustainable just over a year ago so there's not a lot of money when it's all said and done.

Duke estimates it would take between $80,000 and $100,000 for the trio to try and open a new joint in new premises. Instead, they will be running fundraisers to help with what he estimates to be $10,000 in closing costs.

"To move into new premises that has to be a restaurant and amateur performance, well, they're two very high-risk businesses to get into," he said.

"To do it again would require a wonderful plan and inevitably an awful lot of money."

Duke said they are not dead-set against the idea, but they will take the next six weeks to gauge what kind of support there would be for it. If required, they may start fundraising for that venture.

At the end, however, Duke is proud the cafe fulfilled its promise of supporting a positive and diverse downtown community and offered a venue for a slew of amateur, fringe and creative artists.

The cafe estimates it played host to 400 bands, 3,300 comedians and performers and put about $300,000 in the hands of artists as it evolved into offering live shows five or six nights a week. The owners didn't charge acts for the stage or equipment setup, and all door charges went to the performers.

"I loved my job. It was my heart and soul for six years. We've essentially built a venue out of nothing," said Duke.


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