It’s closing time and for the first moment in a busy day, things are relatively quiet in the Husky House Restaurant.
Elizabeth Hodson, co-owner with her son Leith Kelly, still bustles about, making sure all staff gets a share of the daily tips left behind by customers.
“Alright dear, see you tomorrow,” she calls to one waitress leaving for the day.
“Make sure you get that sandwich made for you, love,” she says to another employee.
Husky House is a family restaurant after all, and while Hodson has children of her own, she and Kelly have extended family with her staff and those customers who have proved so loyal to the pair.
The restaurant at the corner of the Island Highway and Stewart Avenue has been part of the Nanaimo scene since the 1950s under a number of different names – including Smitty‘s – with Hodson and Kelly owning it since 2000. In that time, it was named best Husky House in Canada four times.
It’s the only one on Vancouver Island. Customers would have to travel to Chilliwack or Hope to find another in the province.
But like most blasts from the past, the Husky House in Nanaimo will soon just be a fond memory for the many who have walked through the doors looking for a good meal and some pleasant conversation.
The restaurant’s doors are closing for good May 6, as the parent company is heading in a new direction with a market-style convenience store and gas bar.
It’s not the way the mother and son team wanted to go out, but they wouldn’t have missed running the business for anything.
“We knew some change was in the works, that Husky had been considering this for awhile. We hoped to get another two years out if it,” said Hodson.
Kelly, a Red Seal Chef, worked for the previous owners of the restaurant before it closed in the late 1990s, and his mom suggested they take a look at it.
“The next thing you knew we were working around the clock painting and cleaning and then we were in business,” she said.
The problem was the restaurant had been closed for two years and word had not got out they had reopened.
“For awhile nobody was coming in the door. Everybody assumed it was still closed,” said Hodson.
But it didn’t take long for the word to get out, and today, it’s tough to find a seat, especially for a weekend breakfast.
Hodson attributes the restaurant’s success to her son’s efforts with the food.
“Everything is prepared from scratch and we will do our best to cater to the customer’s needs,” she said. “All the sauces are homemade and there is always a roast or turkey in the oven. People come from miles for Leith’s food. It‘s family fare like your granny used to make.”
Another aspect to Husky House is the way customers are treated like family.
“We have 13 wonderful staff who are true, service-oriented people,” said Hodson. “They are all dedicated to making sure people have a good dining experience.”
And in providing that service, the staff at Husky House have become part of their customer’s lives.
“Eleven years doesn’t seem that long, but we have been serving generations,” said Hodson. “People have come here with their teenage children who get married and are now coming here with their children. It‘s the end of an era.”
Customers continually bring the staff gifts at Christmas, or know when their birthday is and drop off a little gift.
“The customers are so upset we’re closing. This has become a gathering place where you share a bit of family news with everyone,” said Hodson. “Many have e-mailed Husky asking them to change their mind.”
Kelly said it has been a pleasure feeding the good people of Nanaimo and he will be sorry to see Husky House go.
“I’m going to miss the people we serve the most,” he said. “We see these people on a daily basis and it has become a community meeting place.”
As for opening another restaurant, Kelly hopes it is in the cards once again.
“We owned the Old Mill Restaurant in Ladysmith from ’86 to ’89 and they say good things come in threes,” he said. “Life is about change and you can’t wallow in it.”
Hodson has plenty to keep herself busy with travel and a big family, but it’s her staff she worries the most about when the doors close.
“I’m 74 but not about to curl up and fester,” she said. “But a lot of the folks here have been with us for years and have many more work years. Unless they move away, they stay here to work.”
Hodson has treasured the time at Husky House and it is all to do with the people.
“You can be up at the till and people will come by and just give you a hug. It’s a shame there are not more places like this.”