Restaurant/music venue has Olive the right ingredients
With the lights low, the din of the kitchen quieted to a murmur and 50 or so diners holding their forks in anticipation of their next bite, musician Wil Mimnaugh pretty much summed it up at the Olive Bistro and Lounge before hitting his first notes December 12.
“You’re eating delicious food, you’re in this amazing venue where great people have worked hard to bring you live music and you’re among friends. Does it get much better?”
Actually, it did.
Mimnaugh—who performs as WiL—intoxicated the crowd with his bluesy ballads before blowing their hair back with his powerful, stomp-happy soul-scratchers. For dessert, he and bandmates Lena Birtwistle and Keith Gallant served up a heady blend of harmonics and hoe-downs, alternately layering Mimnaugh’s powerful baritone with Birtwistle’s spine-tingling falsetto.
And yet while WiL was undoubtedly the reason that most of the patrons were at the Olive that night, the reason they could be there at all is due largely in part to two people who watched the show from the back of the room. Darryl Huculak and his wife, Steph Kalamoutsos, own and operate the Olive. Together the duo are helping keep live music in Jasper alive, but it doesn’t come easy.
Simply operating a restaurant is hard enough; throw in the complexities of negotiating a band’s contract, promoting an event, balancing diners’ expectations with that of music fans’, receiving the artists, setting up the sound, working out staffing numbers and trying to make the night worth it for everyone, and you’ve got as difficult and dynamic recipe as the most delicate soufflé.
“It’s always a bit of a gamble,” Huculak said the night after WiL sold out the room. “We’ve definitely learned a lot since we first started hosting these shows.”
When Darryl and Steph envisioned the Olive Bistro in 2010, they were following their dream of creating a place where they could feature Darryl’s creative cuisine and at the same time, host live music. Before they knew it, they were engaged in a floor to ceiling renovation of what was then the Palisades Restaurant. As the workload piled up and the learning curve steepened, Steph’s parents helped them find their feet.
“They are a big part of this whole thing, they mentored us and were there to help with any problems,” Huculak said.
Problems such as overbooking bands, for example. The couple quickly learned that they couldn’t answer the call every time an act came through town.
“It’s a tricky balance,” Huculak said. “You don’t want to oversaturate. We now try to limit ourselves to two shows per month.”
As to what gigs they bring in, that’s been a learning process, too.
“It seems like the more bluesy-stuff seems to work the best in this venue,” he said. “Those are the folks that are often storytellers, it gives that more intimate atmosphere.”
With a good feel for what works, Steph and Darryl are now more confident in taking on some of the auxiliary roles of music promotion, tasks for which they’d previously relied on others to do. Steph got some graphic design tips so they don’t always have to contract out the poster creation; Darryl learned how to cue up the soundboard.
“You kind of have to do it all, otherwise all these things add up and you end up having to charge $25 at the door to break even,” Darryl said.
That’s another fine balance—the cover charge. Set it too high and you’ll isolate your clientele, too low and you risk ticking off the artist.
“It’s happened,” Darryl smiled. “I just have to tell them ‘sorry, this is Jasper, it’s not the city.’”
Of course, that’s what makes it special for many musicians to play the Olive. Likewise for local audiences: there’s simply not many places in town where you can enjoy a fabulous dinner and a nice glass of wine while taking in live music in an intimate setting. But as their last booking proved, if there’s a WiL, there’s a way.