Mandolyn Jonasson

SodaWorks for Town of Qualicum Beach

Organic eatery fills vacancy as former fire station transitions into business hub

The old fire hall in downtown Qualicum Beach is no longer on call to put out your fire. But it’s a heck of a spot to quench your thirst.

Island SodaWorks, which previously operated a production facility and part-time taco restaurant in Errington, has opened a bistro in a former fire engine bay in the old hall at the triangular corner of Primrose, First Avenue and Harlech Road, which closed when the town opened its state-of-the-art fire station last year on Rupert Road East.

“The town approached us and asked us to come in,” said Mandolyn Jonasson, founder of Island SodaWorks, who runs the new bistro with her partner of one year, Erik Dahlgren. “It fit their mission of bringing in and supporting young families, entrepreneurs and sustainable agriculture.”

And the bistro, which opened on Sept. 13, fits all three categories.

Jonasson, 36, and Dahlgren, 41, have a blended family unit on their Qualicum Bay farm that includes her six-year-old daughter and his 15-year-old son. A good portion of the food served at Island SodaWorks Bistro — including all the meat — is produced on the farm. Much of the rest is simply gathered wild for a menu based on local, organic and pro-biotic ingredients that include wild greens.

“It’s what we call ‘vintage veggies,’” Jonasson said of recipes that include dandelions, sorrel and more. “People are excited that we have organic and wild food. And people love the location. We’ve had people who remember coming here and climbing on the fire trucks when they were little.”

Erik Dahlgren, left, and partner Mandolyn Jonasson prepare food in the kitchen of Island Sodaworks Bistro, which they opened this month in the former fire station in downtown Qualicum Beach. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/NEWS Staff

They share the former fire station with its current anchor tenant, Cloudhead Games, the local virtual reality designer that jumped at the chance to move into Qualicum Beach when the town made the facility available as a business location, said Luke Sales, town planning director.

“Since a couple of years ago, when this whole process began, the town has probably gotten somewhere it didn’t expect to be,” said Sales. “Cloudhead Games was looking for a space and offered to come back when they realized (the hall) was a good space. Island SodaWorks is another good, local business that was looking for a place.

“Suddenly, we have a building downtown serving as a catalyst for change. They’re prospering and bringing families and employment to the town.”

The bistro model is a far cry from Jonasson’s last stab at a business, which was intended simply to give her something to do while spending time with her then-infant daughter.

She began creating her unique soda varieties, including staples like salal and ginger, and schisandra berry with wintergreen, shortly after her daughter was born and after she moved here from Montreal, where she had been attending art school.

Using the kitchen of the Lions Hall in Black Creek — “Because it had the lowest rent,” she said — Jonasson made soda that she sold first at the Comox Valley Farmer’s Market and eventually at markets from Campbell River to Ladysmith.

It proved so popular that she rented a space in Errington in 2012 and set up a production facility to distribute the soda through multiple retail outlets across B.C. — and beyond. Eventually, she said, Island SodaWorks began getting awards and features in food magazines, which led to her appearance on The Dragon’s Den.

“I thought that was what I wanted,” she said of the wholesale distribution. “But suddenly I had all these orders I couldn’t fill. And then the landlord wanted the property back and the situation turned sour. It was terrifying; it was horrible. I hated it.

“And to think, I set it up to spend more time with my daughter. I didn’t expect it to be so popular.”

Mandolyn Jonasson, centre, passes a plate of food to manager Chantel Brandl as Erik Dahlgren looks on in the kitchen of Island Sodaworks Bistro in downtown Qualicum Beach. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/NEWS Staff

And so, last December when her lease ran out, Johansson walked away to devote time to her farm, where the couple raises pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and sheep, along with garden produce.

Before closing the Island SodaWorks production facility in Errington, Jonasson supplemented her income there by opening a small storefront and serving her handmade, organic tacos. The taco bar had only three tables and was open only twice a week for most of her final year in Errington, but it made her realize she got more enjoyment from the food preparation and interaction with customers than she had from mass production of soda.

Having Dahlgren, a carpenter who did much of the building inside the new bistro, on board proved the critical piece to going back into business, she said.

“I don’t think I’d have been able to do it by myself again,” said Jonasson. “I was laying awake at night, terrified.”

Now, she’s making plans for an Island SodaWorks Bistro that is still in an experimental, early phase. The couple will host a community kitchen program on a weekly basis and, ultimately, Jonasson said, she envisions welcoming other food creators into the space to make and sell their own specialties, on a daily basis.

“You could rent it out for the night, and we could have different people renting it on different days,” she said. “That way, instead of one restaurant, you could have eight or nine restaurants in one place.”

The bistro is already promoting live, local music with appearances by Peter Mason each Saturday.

Jonasson insists she’s not in business for profits, but to prove small, local businesses can succeed by creating a collaborative and sharing community. If she and Dahlgren can’t raise or harvest their food on their own farm, they try to get it from another local producer.

“In North America we look at food as fuel,” she said. “I lived in France for eight years and learned that it’s not just fuel. Food is a celebration. It’s love, and it’s connection to family and community.”

Island SodaWorks Bistro is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 124 Harlech Rd. in Qualicum Beach. For info, call 250-203-1072 or visit SodaWorks.

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