It was alumni night at the Keg on Quadra this week, a chance for former employees to get nostalgic about the restaurant chain’s half-century in Victoria.
It turns out that plenty of well-known names tied an apron at the two local Keg restaurants.
Prime Minister John Horgan was once a waiter at The Keg in Victoria. Jeff Mallett, the Mount Doug and UVic football player who went on to create Internet giant Yahoo and buy big chunks of the San Francisco Giants and Vancouver Whitecaps, started out as a dishwasher.
Pamela Anderson worked at the Fort Street restaurant, first as a hostess, then as a waitress in her lounge. (“I used to wear ball gowns and sit behind the catwalk,” she once told TC’s Michael D. Reid.) Keg lore says the waiters argued over the Anderson’s attention, but she preferred to hang out with the cooks, leaving her signature among those on the wall of an old boiler room where the chefs retired to smoke. A few years later, she was arguably the most famous Canadian in the world.
Lesser local luminaries have also passed. Future Oak Bay Mayor Chris Causton trained future Victoria Councilor Chris Coleman to be a waiter. Coleman has actually worked at eight different Kegs over the years, first in Victoria, then in the Lower Mainland while pursuing law school, then as a staff trainer.
He couldn’t help but notice that while the Keg Clan (and they felt like a clan) drew a lot of inspiration from university students and rugby players like him, there were also a lot of Asian immigrants. They are the ones who got stuck. It was a symbiotic relationship, with the restaurant giving immigrants a foothold in Canada, newcomers providing the Keg with a strong employee base.
How did it happen? In Victoria, says co-franchisee Jason Frost, it was a product of the city’s food scene at the time. When the Keg came to town, there weren’t many qualified personnel waiting to be hired. “The restaurants were either family-run or hotel-based or very upscale,” says Frost. “The Keg had to think outside the box.”
The University of Victoria, especially its athletes, was an answer. Immigrants, or at least some of them, made up another. Some were real refugees, boat people from Vietnam. They may not have reflected a larger picture in which many immigrants of the time arrived in Canada bound for higher education or equipped to make the transition to a successful life, but for some of those who worked at the Keg, work meant more than rent and school fees. It meant survival.
Not everyone was running away from a bad situation. Don Poon had a comfortable life as a co-owner of a plastics factory in Hong Kong, but with Red China (that’s what we called it then) preparing to take over the colony, he and his wife Sophia believed that Canada would offer their son and daughter a better education, a better future. The family moved to Victoria, where a relative lived, in 1974.
With little English, Victoria was not easy, however. Don, the former owner of the factory, ended up doing the dishes at the downtown Keg. Then he became a janitor. Then a prep cook. When he left the job of janitor, Sophia held that position. “They would go to work together and come home together,” recalls his son Eric Poon.
Then Eric was trained in the restaurant at 13 years old. “My dad didn’t want me hanging out in the street in the summer.” Eric worked there until college. Coleman says he’s never seen Canadians as proud as Don and Sophia when their son graduated from UBC.
Looking back, Eric, now a commercial realtor in the Lower Mainland, shares that pride. “They came here for us. My father had a rather comfortable job at home. He didn’t have to leave. »
“I look back now and see he worked hard.”
It was the time when a working salary allowed you to buy a house, which the Poons did, but their life was not a life with a lot of frills. Going out for Chinese food on the weekends was as wild as it gets. After the kids moved to the Lower Mainland, their parents followed, Don got a job at a Keg there. Both parents are gone now.
Their story is not uncommon in this country. Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than one in five Canadians was born elsewhere. Most of us had at least one parent or grandparent with an accent, from China, Scotland, India or Ukraine, looking for a better life for their children.