Harvest Grill ‘n’ Greens owner Dion Brisson admits he feels lucky. “Everyday, I go wow, what a great decision,” Brisson said, sitting out on the patio outside of his restaurant in downtown Abbotsford. Since choosing this location for his dream restaurant and procuring it August of last year, he’s been there every day.
“No one’s seen this street more than I’ve seen it. I couldn’t be happier. It’s the best spot, and [everything] is changing so fast downtown.”
Harvest Grill n’ Greens opened in the dead of winter — late December, 2015. Brisson admitted that while winter is a quiet time for a restaurant to open, it allowed room for mistakes and growth.
“It was actually the best time because it was slow and all our systems were new. If we would have been busy-busy right off the get-go, we would have looked terrible. We would have been bumping in to each other and it’s impossible to make a good first impression.
“I’m happy the way things are. I mean sure it’s a struggle as an owner but it’s just been a natural progression to the way it’s supposed to be. ”
Abbotsford is getting attention, notably downtown, and previously apathetic locals are getting drawn in — and Brisson is delighted to be in the thick of it.
Finding Downtown Abbotsford
Brisson has always known he’s wanted to own a restaurant, ever since selling a banana to a vegetarian construction worker when he was nine. Since then, he’s spent 30 years working at bars and restaurants from Whistler to London to the Cayman Islands.
When he decided to follow his dream of opening a restaurant, he narrowed the location down to Chilliwack, Abbotsford, or Langley. After months of looking at locations in each respective city, there was a restaurant in Abbotsford that got his attention.
“Oldhand was a big reason why I chose Abbotsford. I walked in there… And I’d order a coffee, and I’d put my head down, and I’d be like, if I didn’t know it, I could be in Vancouver. Just hipsters everywhere.”
That was the vibe he wanted, and Abbotsford had room for growth: Brisson noticed there was a lack of healthy options in Abbotsford. After coming down from the Abby grind, he didn’t have any options.
“There’s Pita Pit and Subway — [but], let’s get our story straight. That’s all processed. We don’t have flour here, we don’t have cornstarch here. We make all of our soups from scratch, all our salads from scratch.”
After a recommendation from a friend, Brisson checked out Downtown Abbotsford. And he did his homework: “I came down and I parked my car here for two weeks. And I just kind sat there in my cars and watched people. And I thought, you know what, there is something about this.”
Providing Abbotsford with real options
Going out to eat is very social, but we’re at a time where food restrictions are quite common. Harvest is a somewhat safe place for foodies with restrictions — and their friends. Brisson explained that Harvest is set up so that anyone can sit and eat with their friends. “Our menu is set up for the heartiest meat eater — pulled pork sandwich to the chicken and Brie, and all the way to the vegan-est vegan.”
Harvest is set up for more than one type of clientele, Brisson explained, highlighting flexibility and diversity. “Everyone is covered. And that’s important — that you’re not just keying on the demographic. We always have one soup that’s vegan friendly, we always have one soup that’s meat. Our veggie sandwich has grilled tofu, grilled red peppers, zucchini, sun-dried tomato spread, chickpea hummus. It’s like a veggie big mac.”
Harvest creates their salads in the back without dressing or cheese. Their menu items are used as rough guidelines. “We’ll mix and match for you, we’ll design for you. There are some places where there is nothing there for [vegans]. Or they look ‘silly’ asking. Well, you don’t look silly here.”
“I want people to change their concept of ‘restaurants.’”
After 30 years of working in the restaurant industry, Brisson wants his staff to experience something different. “What I explain [to staff] is, they grow as the Harvest grows. It’s not like this corporation where money is coming out of it, we kind of split everything. When someone walks in, then leaves, it doesn’t just affect me — it affects [staff] as much as me. When the salads don’t look good or don’t taste good, it doesn’t just affect me.”
As Harvest reaches goals, Brisson explained, his staff will see that growth. As they reach and go above the target goal, “everyone gets another raise.”
Brisson hopes to get to the point where staff can earn $20 an hour with tips. He already feels that this system gives Harvest a positive dynamic. “[Harvest staff] are always cleaning, always doing something. They take ownership. Because Harvest is them too, not just me.”
One of Brisson’s visions for Harvest is to source local as much as possible. He is currently working with a couple local veggie farms, including Abundant Acre Family Farm and Flavourful Farms, and hopes to branch out to local meats, as well. “It’s just a matter of time before we’re able to locally source almost everything. I like eating organic and pesticide free … I like it because it’s good for me, and I like it because I’m giving [the farmer] the money. Cut out all those trucks, cut out California, that to me makes the food taste better.”
Sourcing local can clash with his goal of providing for all kinds of clientele, Brisson noted. Not everyone wants to pay the higher prices for local or organic. As Harvest shifts to more local, he wants to keep options open for customers.
“I listen to what works for people and what doesn’t. That’s kind of my style – we’ve got the cheapest soda pop, cheapest water, all the way to the most expensive kombucha. You can have whatever you want.”
Dion Brisson’s vision for Harvest has changed since opening. “The first thing was to just get open. Get through lunch rushes, find out what people want.” The nature of Harvest’s food made is easy to move into catering — they even do weddings. “Our food travels really well. People like that.”
Harvest’s next goal is to extend their hours. “Right now we’re open at 11 a.m., but I want to lock down and show people that Downtown doesn’t just close at 4. Bow and Stern has been great. These people are unbelievable; they’ve done such a great job.”
Brisson admits that, while initially thinking about branching out — potentially to Whistler — he is content with slowly growing from his current location. “I’ll want another adventure. [but] I don’t want to rush somewhere else. I’m falling in love with downtown…. I believe in it so much.”
“I’m here already. My plan is to do something else downtown, but I want to first make this perfect and find the right people.”