Locals: Michael Robbins
Michael Robbins is the Executive chef and owner of Vancouver restaurants Annalena, Their There and Hundy. A native of Vancouver, Mike started off his culinary career as a chef de cuisine at Glowbal group after an inspired stay in Australia. Later holding senior positions at Coast and an executive chef role at Oakwood Canadian Bistro, Mike has also successfully opened 3 of his own iconic local spots. His first restaurant Annalena opened in 2015 and was soon followed by joint restaurant concepts Their There and Hundy.
We’ve revived our Locals series to speak with Mike about industry realities, post-pandemic changes, and how we best can support our favourite local businesses.
RG: Thanks for taking the call, and of course the time to speak with us.
MR: No problem. How are things?
RG: Right now, we’re still getting a lot of support from people online, so things are alright. We’re maintaining. What about you guys?
MR: I think maintaining is the only answer, but I guess when I think about the long-term results of this, they might be pretty dramatic. I don’t know exactly how we’re doing, you know?
MR: We’re doing okay right now… We’re in a lucky position in the grand scheme of things, especially being Canadian. But I feel like no one’s lucky right now. The people making take-out boxes must be killin’ it though [laughs].
RG: Delivery services must be pretty busy right now too. With this Locals series we always try to feature people close to us or people that deserve a spotlight within our city. With the whole pandemic situation, we felt like it was time to turn it up a notch. If you’re an owner in any business you’ve faced a negative effect of this pandemic. We thought it would be a good opportunity to check-in with people in different industries; catch up and see what everyone’s been up to. Maybe we can start this off with a general check-in to see how you’re doing? Also, for readers who don’t know you, a little background about what you do or how you got into the world of food?
MR: I guess to start, I’d say my perspective is very local. I was born and raised in Vancouver and grew up between Main and Fraser on 37th street. I’ve lived a block east or west of Main my entire life basically, outside of when I would travel for cooking. I trained in Australia for some time but lived a majority of my life in Vancouver. I’ve been cooking since I was 17; I’m 35 now. It’s my only career. I think my insight into the restaurant industry comes from that local perspective. I went from a dishwasher, to a chef owner, to a restauranteur. Just going through that whole process to get to this point has been… you know, challenging enough.
MR: Now we’re at a whole different thing we need to figure out.
RG: With the three spots you started, Annalena was the first, right?
MR: That was crazy too because we recently had our 5-year anniversary on Friday. Then we closed on Monday. Like we had our anniversary March 13th then we closed March 15th.
MR: Right? It was pretty dramatic. We went from a full house to being closed in two days. Of course, we had some forewarning, but to see things switch that fast…
RG: That’s only a 48-hour difference. You were saying you heard some news before at least?
MR: I think there was a mandatory closure on the 18th. It started to feel kind of weird and eerie that weekend, so we just decided to call it.
RG: Man, crazy. So, with Annalena, there’s also Their There and Hundy?
MR: Right. Their There and Hundy operate out of the same venue, but they’re different operations. That was intentional as well. We’re lucky to have that at this time, since Their There and Hundy had such a large take-out presence to begin with. The transition to ‘take-out only’ wasn’t that hard, thankfully. The only thing was Annalena just sitting there. We knew there were things we needed to change for Annalena more than anything, so working on that within the physical space offered a solution. We’re making changes right now and we’re making changes to the way we’re going to operate in the future. Before anything’s put down on paper, the industry needs to be redefined. We decided to move everything to one location, put all the strongest people in this one location, and execute the brand from this one space. Then kind of do a bit of a rebrand, which is called “Strange Times Take Away.” That’s kinda…
RG: …What’s happening right now.
MR: Yeah, it really is a strange time and that was kind of fitting. When I look back in 20 years, I wanted to have that thing that really reminded me of what this all was. To have that rebrand during these times makes it a stronger memory.
RG: Yeah. You seem to position yourself in a similar role to a creative director as well as a chef, rather than a business owner slash chef, as most restaurants might carry their role. You can see that in the way you approach the 3 restaurants. There’s a similarly strong concept behind Annalena, Their There, and Hundy. We know you’re into street culture and have a pretty great awareness of what’s currently on trend; especially for you to get into KAWS, Bearbrick and sneakers.
MR: Yeah, I have quite a vast toy collection.
RG: If you could rewind to 30 days ago, were you thinking about Strange Times or was there something that you guys were working on before this all went down?
MR: As soon as Seattle went into lockdown, which was maybe 2 weeks before things really became serious in February, we started thinking about what kind of moves we would have to make. I started working on the graphics for Strange Times, just to have it ready to roll out, right away. It’s such an interesting thing. You never really expect to have to do things this way, where you stop your restaurant on a dime. I know it’s similar to any other industry but like… it’s a weird thing when you open up a restaurant, you have this investment that you’ve raised. It’s almost like you’re paying for stuff that you owe from previous months with future money. I buy my food for all of January then pay that food rate at the end of January. You end up using some of February’s month to pay for January. That kind of idea. When the restaurant is moving that fast and you stop, the money keeps coming out, but nothing is really coming in. My thing is making sure we’re sure we’ll stay open because if we have to reclose, it’s that “stop, start, stop start,” where the real damage happens. We’ve been ironing out Strange Times to make sure when it’s time to be put out, it makes sense.
RG: Right. Where is Strange Times operating from? Is it at There Their on West 4th?
MR: Yeah, There Their.
RG: I think in a similar way, we’re almost in the same spot. Our inventory comes in from different brands and you’re expecting to move product to pay for the next drop. With retail, you’re usually 6 months ahead. You probably faced the same uncertainties of “Are we opening or closing?” If we’re closing, who’s staying on board and how many people can we can keep on board? Then just finding the right message to relay, it was so uncertain. Everyday there was a new update.
MR: I think it was the same for your industry but – the most painful thing for me was seeing it on the news every morning. I remember someone announcing, “Restaurants don’t have to close, but please don’t go to them.” Well, you’re just killing us that way [laughs].
RG: Yeah, they completely butchered that [laughs].
MR: Either say, you have to close, and no one’s allowed to go or say you’re open and it’s okay. Don’t say stay open but don’t go. That was the most stressful part. Everything’s going to be a fight, you know. Fighting with your landlords and fighting with suppliers. Just the whole thing of trying to stop the bleeding and make a game plan. It’s crazy.
RG: I guess fast-tracking to now… We’re surprisingly over a month in from this situation. Your team’s been doing a tremendous job from your end, keeping communications and graphics on point, as always. What kind of things have you been looking at to keep yourself motivated and positive through the past month?
MR: I’m staying positive about the whole thing. I like to create stuff, just as a general statement. I do like challenges, so even navigating through this – there’s components of it that are interesting to figure out. For me there’s just an absolute necessity to remain above water because I have a wife and a kid to take care of, so that’s the real motivation now. I’ve always been motivated, you know? Everything we have – we’re still a super small company and are completely independent. It’s just us and none of us come from money. Everything that we have we’ve earned. I’ve always been motivated, but now I’m on survival mode. I think starting a restaurant is similar to fashion in where it’s like throwing caution to the wind when you decide to open something.
RG: If there’s something you could share about the situation right now, even just in planning. Obviously, it’s very hard to say with the new challenges we’re presented with daily. What do you think the biggest takeaway from this is?
MR: With hospitality in general, even myself included and those that came before us: there’s been a lot of things that we’ve done wrong that we haven’t been in the position to fix for a long time. Once something’s moving, it’s very hard to implement very dramatic changes. I think now as a whole industry, and even just an individual, we have an opportunity to fix a lot of things we might have been doing wrong. Some of it, we’ve been done wrong by, and some of it is our doing, you know? It’s just in addressing those things and making the changes, when we’re given an opportunity to make them. That’s important. So, it’s not all for nothing. If we open back up and carry on as if nothing was broken before, then nothing is gained from this, it’s just loss. If we can make some positive adjustments as a business or as a community with it – I mean I’m just thinking about business. The downtown east side right now is just…
RG: It’s madness.
MR: I feel like stuff we’re talking about matters less than that stuff in the grand scheme of things. All we can see of course, is worrying about the businesses right now, and helping where we can for the city as well.
RG: Do you feel like this has changed the industry for you? Obviously, the biggest change being no sit-downs, currently. You were speaking on adaptation earlier. How has this situation brought inspiration or motivation for you to suggest different solutions?
MR: Nothing’s ironed out enough to put it on paper. It’s still kind of the wild west in a sense. Something I’d say is an unfixable issue currently is the tipping system. You’re going in there knowing you have an additional 15-20% on top of what you pay for. That costs the guest money, but the business, chefs and support staff don’t get a majority of that. It’s very difficult to navigate the tipping system and how it works.
RG: That’s a great point.
MR: It’s just about how to address that in the future. Can we even address it? It’s feels like something so innately built into society that can’t be changed. I think that’s more of me asking a question than having an answer to it, but I know it’s a problem. It’s a bit of a sensitive subject. I’m a chef, so I know where my priorities lie on that matter, but it’s one that the industry doesn’t have an overall answer to.
RG: If we could switch gears a bit, we wanted to get your take on how we could show support for our local business. What are the best ways to do that, right now?
MR: When I go shopping, there’s maybe 3 or 4 stores that are my go-to spots. I’d say, The Corner Store, Roden Gray, and Gravity Pope. That kind of covers my general style. Then I collect sneakers which is a whole different path. I could get a lot of the same product if I just went to a department store, for example.
MR: I choose to go to those spots over that, you know? There’s also a community around those stores too. You might meet that one sales rep at a bigger store that’s your guy, but it isn’t the same thing as going in and feeling the clothing in a smaller store. It’s a bit different. Rob Lo would come into Annalena all the time and I’d come visit Roden. It was one of those supportive relationships. I feel like there’s always going to be a big chain trying to get in the way of an independent spot. Even if they don’t mean to. All they’re trying to do is grow their business but at a certain point, your business is too big for the city and you’re wiping out all the independents. At a time like this… I guess just order food from the small guys. There’s a lot of politics tied up in this that I shouldn’t’ get into [laughs].
RG: Yeah, we feel you [laughs].
MR: I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and things have changed. If I were to look back and think about the best spots, I could maybe count to 10. Now there are just so many great restaurants. Is there even in the best of times, room for all of us? No, there isn’t. There were too many restaurants before this happened, now there are obviously way too many. Now we have this reset happening. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stay open or not in the long run, time will tell. We don’t have that answer yet, but I know that before this happened, we had an oversaturated system. There are some negative things that will always be negative, but some negatives can definitely be turned to positives. I’m hoping that the positives happen in the restaurant industry. I always saw a place in the restaurant industry for a proper dine-in spot but from the scope of what’s happening, that seems impossible right now… to do it romantically. That hospitality, engagement – what’s happening in the front is just as important as what happens in the kitchen. Now the front part doesn’t exist. Now it’s just a sterile looking world. I’m hoping that we can have dining in again, but I’m not sure how that will look yet.
RG: It’s almost too close to home. Until we figure out a cure or something, then we can start generating thoughts of improvement. It’s hard to romanticize… anything right now. Our first point of thought was wondering if fashion even has a place in these times. Just speaking a bit more on supporting our favourite food spots, does it make a difference in how we order? Should we be calling in versus using food apps?
MR: We still use those platforms. I think since Annalena is pick-up only that’s kind of out of the question. For Their There and Hundy it’s a platform free-for-all. Use whatever app works best for you.
RG: So “Strange Times” is a collective takeout for all 3 restaurants operating out of Their There.
MR: For us, we can either have both locations open up every day with split teams, but because we’re in decrease revenue right now, it’s going to be more manageable to have everything in one place. We’ve turned Hundy’s dining area into a kitchen we can execute Annalena out of, while the old kitchen still does Their There and Hundy. We have all of our power in one place, so we’re not wasting any expenses operating out of both spots. It helps us keep the business as simple as possible.
RG: Unity is power. Is it open every day? We heard Hundy was doing Thursday to Sunday night.
MR: We do Wednesday to Sunday now for everything. We’re closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
RG: Okay, we’ll keep that in mind. To end things off, could you share a piece of advice for anyone wanting break into the food industry or anyone passionate about food in general?
MR: I think my advice still remains consistent. If you want to be successful at something, especially when you’re younger, you need to get this quality of life concept out of your brain. This notion of “I like a work-personal life balance” type thing. I think with anything, if you’re passionate and you love it, you’ll be willing to put in the hours. That’s my advice. No matter what job you have, if you’re going to work for a living, it’s fine to work 8 hours. If you want to build a career, then you need to put in longer days. Whether you’re at home studying or at work. It’s super important to always pursue getting better. Whether you’re a lawyer, doctor, professional athlete, or a chef. If you really want to be the best at it, you’re putting more work than anyone else. I still think hard work will win over anything.
RG: Very well said. Thanks again Mike for taking the time to check-in with us. Take care and stay safe.