Twenty-five years ago, with the exception of a few pioneers, the restaurant landscape on Prince Edward Island was pretty much awash with deep fryer-dependent menus.
In the midst of this fried food fest, one small, independently-owned establishment opened its doors in Victoria with a decidedly noticeable difference — a refreshingly healthy and tasty menu that continues to this day.
“(Back then) we’d have people leave because we didn’t have a fryer. Today people come in and they want salad. I used to buy a pail of feta cheese and that would last me all summer. Now I go through a pail a week. It’s just an example of how things have changed,” smiles Eugene Sauvé, owner of The Landmark Café which is marking its quarter-century milestone moment in 2014.
Sauvé’s change in career direction came when he and his family moved to Victoria in 1988.
At the time he was working at the Victoria Playhouse after being hired for an acting and stage production work by the late Erskine Smith, who was a driving force behind the evolution of the village of Victoria into the Victoria-by-the-sea destination that it is today.
Craig’s Grocery Store had been a fixture in the community for years. When owner Annie Craig retired, Sauvé approached her with the idea of purchasing the century-old building. After some consideration and time, the sale went through and the restaurant joined the short list of other businesses that called Victoria home, such as the Playhouse, the Chocolate Factory, the Orient Hotel and the Victoria Village Inn.
Still, it wasn’t easy to go from being a restaurant employee to owner.
“I remember having nightmares opening this place thinking ‘This is really stupid?’
“All of my friends were saying, ‘You’re crazy; in Victoria? It’s never going to fly. You’re wasting your money.’ But in the back of my mind I thought this village some day is going to be a tourist destination,” he remembers.
In retrospect, the name of the restaurant was just destined to be after a visit from longtime Victoria resident Hope Leard during the renovations in 1989.
“She said, ‘When we were kids we used to call it the Landmark. They’d say ‘Meet you at the Landmark’ and all the kids would meet here.’ So that’s what we called it,” Sauvé says.
Money was tight, so this fledgling restaurant owner was working with a tight apron-string budget.
His dishes, cutlery and so forth came from an old diner next to the old Charlottetown Forum, the carpet for the entire building came from a year-end sale Callbecks in Bedeque had for just $75 and solid sturdy assortment of tables and chairs in the original restaurant section were hand crafted by Crapaud farmer George Nicholson for just $2,000.
“When he delivered them he said, ‘I will never build another (bleeping) chair again as long as I live.’ He and his son, I guess, worked overnight for days (in order to get them done in time),” he laughs.
One cost-saving measure that turned out to be a display treasure in disguise was the original shelving and drawers from Craig’s Grocery. It is now chock full of knick-knacks and objet d’art all over the world.
There’s everything from toy vehicles made from tin cans made in Cuba, Vietnam and Thailand and a vintage Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket to front pages of The Guardian newspaper of some of the major events that have occurred in the last 25 years.
Just by happenstance, on this day Sauvé’s daughter, Rachel, finds a little blast-from-the-past treasure in one of the drawers that she’d given to him for Father’s day when she was a child.
“This is one of my (baby) teeth, my ring, my earrings, a marble, a worry doll . . . . I haven’t seen this in years,” she says in amazement.
On that opening day 25 years ago, Hope Leard officially “cut” the ribbon by riding her three-wheel bicycle through it and The Landmark Café was officially open for business.
“But the first day was really scary. I wasn’t sure what we were going to get, or if anybody was going to walk in,” Sauvé says.
While the drive-thru tourist crowd does account for a portion of diner traffic, The Landmark Café also has a strong customer base of local people and summer residents in the area.
“If it wasn’t for the local business we would have been closed (fairly quickly), but we really do have a strong local following,” Eugene says.
Of course, The Landmark’s open kitchen, which at the time of the restaurant’s opening 25 years ago, was not a common concept, helps to keep track of the goings on in the dining room.
“I’m a bit of a ham. I like to see people come in and out and I always want to greet my customers,” laughs Sauvé.
For the Sauvé family, the restaurant is more than just a business that serves food.
“We’ve had 25 years of this place so it’s like home . . . ,” says his son, Oliver, who started as a dishwasher at the age of 13 and like his sister, Rachel, are still fixtures at The Landmark Café.
“It was great because you met a lot of people and now the babies who were coming in with their parents 25 years ago are coming in with their babies,” Oliver adds.
A quarter-century after the doors opened to The Landmark Café, Victoria-by-the-sea is now a renowned tourist destination, with more than 20 businesses tucked within its historic village boundaries.
“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment, not just for myself but for the whole village (which has grown and prospered),” Sauvé says.
“Twenty-five years down the road we’re still here, we’re still together, we’re still able to make a living and watch the community grow.”
AT A GLANCE
The Landmark Café in Victoria is marking its 25th year in the restaurant business.
You can find it on Facebook by typing in the keywords Landmark Cafe, or follow it on Instagram @landmarkcafe and Twitter @CafeLandmark.