Fred & Gary's Story of Beer in Kitsilano
I guess if I’m going to write our personal history of beer in Kitsilano I would start with 1986 and it was Expo year. My best friend and business partner Gary Reilly and I were in management working for the Fogg & Suds restaurant chain which had their original restaurant at 4th and Blenheim. Their concept was to bring in beer from all over the world when all you could get was the big three of Carlings, Labatts or Molson. You could get also get Moosehead and Mickey’s Big Mouth Ale through the LDB, which seemed to be very exotic and a couple of imports such as Becks, Heineken and Lowenbrau.
Fun fact: Carlings had a huge Brewery at the corner of 11th and Yew up until 1995. So between Carlings and Molson Breweries, beer had a huge footprint in Kits. Fogg & Suds imported upwards of 250 different brands bringing in draught and bottle beers including fruit beers from Belgium, great British ales, Irish lagers and stouts, Australian, Japanese, Thai, Indian, the US and so on. They educated their staff on all the nuances of the different beers while making it fun for them as well as the clientele. Their 80 beers around the world passport program rewarded customers at milestone points such as 10- 25- 50 different beers. They would stamp your personal beer passport while giving away F&S logoed t-shirts, glassware, jackets depending on the milestone.
We left the Fogg a few years later with the idea of opening our own bar and restaurant. We were very fortunate to end up at York and Yew as that location prior to being the Sunset Grill was known as Greer’s Bistro. Greer’s was named after the Irish settler Sam Greer, an infamous local who once owned Kits Beach at the turn of the 20th century. It was a funky locals restaurant that served the best burger and chocolate cake in a friendly atmosphere. There were several interested parties vying for the location including one that was a Keg Steak House franchisee. The landlord Norm Babb, who owned Kits Cameras, which at the time had over 90 franchises across North America took a shine to us and made it very easy for us to make a go with our first business venture. We signed the lease on March 17th and opened on May 20th, 1989 with the help of many of our friends and family. We opened with 4 taps, which were dominated by Labatts as we had a great working relationship from a prior bar, with one tap going to a small local brewery. While working for Gary at the Cambie and Broadway Fogg, one former employee Tim Wittig had been constantly late for work. Gary was concerned with Tim’s constant tardiness and asked him why he was late so often. Tim asked Gary to trust that there was a great reason and that in time he would understand why. Gary liked Tim and gave him some room. Turns out Tim and his business partner Paul were building a small craft brewery on the east side called Shaftesbury Brewing. It went on to much critical and commercial success as one of the original craft breweries in Vancouver and was our first microbrewery on tap.
Over the years we expanded our tap selection from 4 to 8 to 12 to 17 taps by the time we closed. Being of Irish background we brought in Guinness on tap in the early nineties. This was a big endeavor as you needed a slow gas to keep the pressure low as not to over carbonate the precious Guinness. An Irish friend of ours Brendan said to us at the time that you didn’t need a lot of people drinking Guinness, you just needed a few drinking a lot of Guinness. Words to live by! We were very fortunate over the years as Kits beach is a very dynamic village to have a life in. We had a very loyal following which stayed true through the years. Being a sports centric bar, we were involved with many of different groups from beach volley ballers, indoor volleyball in the winter, rugby, softball teams, soccer teams, footbaggers, tennis players, golf leagues, frat and sorority teams and so on. One of the constants with all of our teams was coming back to the Grill for a beer. That was the thing about beer - it was the great unifier!
Music was always a big component at the Sunset and as we found out musicians love their beer and so do their fans! Over the years we were very fortunate to have a lot of great local talent grace our stage.
We always had a daily beer special which kept it interesting. With the explosion of craft beer in the 2000’s we kept up with new beer trends and brands with a monthly rotating tap. This proved to be a very successful program. We worked with lots of great beer reps over the years and we owe a debt of gratitude to so many of them.
In 2000 we applied for a Pub license and in 2002 we were granted one. In 2003 the government suspended the moratorium on cold beer and wine stores and any business with a liquor primary license could apply. So armed with the newly acquired Pub license, we were granted a temporary license at the Grill. Unfortunately, we were within the 150-meter guideline restriction of Kits Beach so we had to look elsewhere. We found a home at 15th and Main and the Brewery Creek Cold Beer & Wine Store opened in 2005. Our main focus then as is now is beer with over a thousand sku’s and a hyper focus on craft micro brews.
We always say the main reason for our success was all the great staff we had over the years coupled with the amazing neighborhood support we enjoyed for almost thirty years. From talking to Andrew, he and his partners at Kits Beach Beer Company want to keep the party rolling and give the Kits Beach community its own beer that they can enjoy with their friends and family with an eye to the past, enjoying the present, while looking to the future. We applaud them for this and wish them good luck in their venture.
As a good friend of ours Big Al once said “Boys you had me at beer”!
Fred Wilson & Gary Reilly
Former Proprietors of The Sunset Grill