Two years. That’s the time frame the McHardys gave themselves back in the 1970s to see if their pastry business would work out. Little did they know, The Patty Shop would end up serving Jamaican patties at the exact location in Vancouver’s Arbutus-Ridge neighbourhood for more than four decades.
“Our landlord, who was a customer of ours, he said to me, he was the one who rented us the place, and he thought there would not be a chance in the world that we would have been successful ’cause he had never heard of patties,” said The Patty Shop’s owner, Marilyn McHardy.
How very wrong the landlord was.
With no official website and no social media even now, The Patty Shop has not changed much since McHardy and her husband Daryl opened the family business in 1979. Tucked away in a quiet strip of McDonald Street on Vancouver’s west side, it is a small, simple over-the-counter institution that only offers two kinds of food — patties and roti.
Its source of customers, on the contrary, is much more diverse.
It was another typical Saturday in Vancouver when I tried to find out why patrons kept returning to this community store. The fog and drizzle had dimmed the sky but the chilly weather did not put off people from crawling out of their warm heated homes. Patrons started trickling into the takeaway shop at lunch hour.
Among them: Jamaican immigrant craving for the familiar taste of home. Indian diaspora drawn by the similar palate of the two cultures — the love for herbs and spices. Worker from the nearby laundry looking for something hot and fresh. Mother of two hoping to stuff the freezer for the weekend with easy fast food that would taste equally flaky even when heated with a home oven. Regular who grew up in the neighbourhood revisiting the childhood memory.
Luisa Peters, who lived in nearby Kitsilano, has been popping by The Patty Shop every once in a while since her youth.
“Everyone in Kitsilano would tell you they grow up eating here. It’s my childhood staple,” Peters said with a lifted tone. “As a kid, I was a picky eater too,” the culinary student added. “My mom would always get me patties.”
Although Peters stopped visiting The Patty Shop when she got older and studied out of town, she soon came back to the familiar taste when a friend told her the tiny institution still existed.
“I was like ‘Oh! You work at the place I went to as a kid?!’”
That familiarity was something the McHardys had to cultivate when they started the takeaway spot. Back then, shops at the closest commercial street — West Broadway in Kitsilano — were heavily Greek. Marilyn McHardy said they were the only Jamaican family in the neighbourhood.
“People had never heard of Jamaican patties. They would walk in, they thought patties were the hamburger filling, and they’d expect to see a slab of raw meat.”
However, the challenge of the freshly started business did not end there.
“This was a sleepy little street,” McHardy added. “There was nothing going on here but the rent was cheap and we live close by so those were the factors that made use choose this location.”
The McHardys handed out free patties to educate the locals about what the meat-and-spiced-filled flaky pastries were. Students from nearby Trafalgar elementary school became their first batch of customers. The younglings would come at lunchtime and even on hotdog day, and their moms would swing by and say the little ones told them to pick up more frozen patties.
The initial two-year plan was soon thrown out of the window.
“I wouldn’t say we were rich in the first two years but, you know, you could say we were holding on and advancing a bit. We did it year by year. We did not have a five-year plan, 10-year plan,” McHardy said.
“We focused on community a lot in our new days for obvious reasons. It was a very small community. For us, I thought it’s a very nice community in that respect. It wasn’t all one thing and developed by an outsider. We got to know different kinds of people.”
Knowing the neighbourhood and its people has always been a key to The Patty Shop’s identity.
“It’s just worth a moment to talk to our customer, it’s how we got our customer,” McHardy said. “And we instruct our girls to be friendly. Don’t be afraid to spend a few minutes talking to a customer. If you’re not keeping people waiting, that sort of thing. That’s part of their job description. Be a friendly person. Not just bring it up and have a nice day and off you go.”
And that bond extended beyond the owner-customer relationship. Patrons waiting in line would chat with one another, McHardy recalled. And people would peruse their business cards and exchange them with one another.
Inside the shop, the iconic bulletin board plastered with leaflets of community events and business cards remains. But as posters in the shop that were as old as the eatery itself faded, changes were being wrought to the quiet neighbourhood.
Empty retail stores on the same street were rezoned, slated for development. This came as parts of Vancouver’s west side faced a hollowing-out. Population in Arbutus-Ridge has suffered a decline since 2006, with a falling youth share. The neighbouring Kerrisdale, Dunbar and Point Grey neighbourhoods also saw drops in numbers of residents.
Food trends changed too. Hard fat, which gives the pastry in the patties a crumply crisp texture, was deemed “bad’ and then “acceptable” again.
The Patty Shop stuck to the familiar simplicity almost like a time capsule — same recipe, same décor, same people.
Some of the young customers who helped jumpstart the business joined the food place when they grew up, working part-time at the institution from high school through university.
“We sort of mother them through their career plans,” McHardy said with a smile.
Meanwhile, some other patrons brought in the second and third generations of customers.
“They may have moved a little further away and brought up a family. And so they are coming back now and saying they need some frozen patties for their freezer for their kids,” McHardy said with another chortle. “And so we welcome them back.”
The Patty Shop managed to endure unchanged because of its familiar simplicity.
“People say it’s the same poster, the same sign, even the same taste. We consider that to be a positive. Other people wouldn’t. They might say, ‘Oh, got to keep up with the time and stuff like that.’ But we don’t. We don’t look at it that way,” McHardy said.
“We are constant, and they are coming and going. But we might recognize them for what they order for one and something from a conversation,” McHardy beamed with her signature laugh again. “They are recognized as individuals. I think they might be part of it. And, of course, mostly the patties are good.”