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John’s Story

How could I have imagined that driving down a California highway in a 67 Volkswagon van, rag top down, singing Stevie Wonder hits, would lead me to a small city on an island in Canada for the past 29 years, creating and operating John’s Place Restaurant? Oh yes, I had the experience — I’ve been cooking for 30 years, even won a gold medal at the food Olympics, but that’s a far cry from running a very busy diner style restaurant with breakfast, lunch and dinner 364 days a year. It sure didn’t start out that way, though.

I came with my best friends in LA, John Luchansky, who left for his home in Ohio and Joe Weisbrodt, ( who has since passed away Nov 19, 2004 ), a transplanted LA man, to open a hamburger joint called Little Sammy’s Fattburger with his childhood buddy Howie Siegel. A far cry from gourmet meals and gold medals you should ask? You’re right; looking back, I must have been crazy, but I’ve been a Bob Dylan troobadoor my whole life and the intrigue of owning something far outweighed my culinary desire. It will be of no surprise to everyone that I lasted just about a year. I went to bed with Fattburgers on my mind and woke up to the smoke of the charbroiler. Do you believe in destiny? I had a ticket to leave Victoria and go on another Bilbo Baggins adventure to Tahiti. I had saved $6,000 and was headed to the sun. I had no idea what was in Tahiti but I knew it was warm and had plenty of girls and NO FATTBURGERS! As luck goes, my motorcycle broke down and I had to start walking to work.

Nice walk from Bay & Fernwood down Pandora Ave. to Little Sammy’s. I had to pass the old, boarded-up London Fish “n” Chips restaurant everyday. I would glance over and keep walking, dreaming about the sun in Tahiti. Well, each day I would start to linger, peering through the large glass windows in the front, glancing at the tall ceilings and thinking about an old fashioned diner, the kind we all grew up in back then, before the flood of Franchise “FOOD”. Suddenly Tahiti was very far away and I had to find out some things about the building. It was boarded up with no sign of life.

I started the ball moving by asking a realtor friend, Dave Vogelsang, to look into the building to see if it was for rent. I remember going home and calling my sister Josie, in Windsor, Ontario. After all, her husband Denis Ouellette was instrumental in getting me to cook. He has been a professional chef for 40 years. I wanted to do this with them. Family and a chef to help me and no FATTBURGERS, what a life! Yes, it was for rent. How much? Make an offer. Dave helped me to negotiate a good lease for a very good price since it was gutted and we would have to build a restaurant. Josie and Denis would fly to Victoria next week to check things over. I made my first big blunder and not my last.

I signed the lease with the $6,000 down for guarantee and 2 months rent free to commence the work but I still had no guarantee that my family would help me. As fate would take me, they backed out because they had 3 young boys in school in Windsor and didn’t want to uproot them. Wow! In a little over 2 weeks I was going to Tahiti, owning a restaurant, signing a lease with all the money I had, and no one to help or finance me. Pretty nervous few days I would sayI went to ask my friend Howie Siegel to finance me and the rest is history. We opened the doors in October 1984 and 30 years later we are still going strong. People often ask me, “What is the secret to your success”. It doesn’t hurt having a culinary background because you can always step in at any time but I would have to say the sacrifice. I lived in my office the first 6 months on a throw down futon. I opened at 6 am and sat down at 9 pm, seven days a week. As business would get better I would start to treat myself with a day off or an evening off and finally a week-end away from Victoria. HEAVEN!I have been very lucky to have a beautiful staff, many have been with me over 29 years. Bernie, Liz, Deborah, Cheryl, my cook Scott Dixon and of course, Rodney, my host and friend! I have watched their own families grow and we have a good relationship. They know what I expect and I do my best to let them have their own freedom.

As far as my life, I have 2 beautiful children, Norman and Meela and they are the lights of my life!

I still try and manage a few things at the restaurant but I have my freedom to see the WORLD and for that I am happy!

John Cantin