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Sidney’s changing face

New developments, new businesses and new people are changing Sidney
Devon Bird of Moden not only runs her business in Sidney’s downtown core, but also lives in one of the new developments increasingly dominating the local skyscape. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Guillaume Boutellant has options.

The 27-year-old pastry chef could work anywhere in the world by virtue of his culinary training, which started in the French city of Grenoble in the Alps near Switzerland and Italy when he was 14 years old. Over the years, he has worked with top chefs (like German-born Thomas Haas of North Vancouver, one of the world’s leading chocolatiers) and as recent as last winter, he was working as a sous-chef in a Two-Star Michelin restaurant in France. And yet he finds himself in Sidney and he likes what he sees.

“I like Sidney because of how small and cozy it is, but it is moving tremendously fast,” said Boutellant. “You can see everything booming. It’s not the same in France. People just stick to what they know.”

This boom has a physical dimension as evidenced by the new residential developments that have sprung up in the downtown core. While the various socio-economic and demographics effects of this development will not be known for some time, it has already changed Sidney and the Saanich Peninsula as individuals like Boutellant bring their skills and entrepreneurial spirit into play, changing the face of Sidney along the way.

As Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith recently reminded the public while discussing the feature of Beacon Wharf, another iconic feature of the community about to change, Sidney has an industrial history rooted in logging among other industries that once dominated British Columbia. As those industries have waned, Sidney has converted its seaside location and mild climate into a draw for retirees and tourists from near and far, while serving as the retail and commercial hub for the northern Saanich Peninsula. Now it is assuming a more urban look, trying to balance its small-town charms with increasingly cosmopolitan tastes and preferences.

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Not everyone has been happy with this transition, as evidenced by the vocal and not unsubstantial opposition to cannabis outlets. Previous complaints focused on the perceived lack of accountability in public decision-making in favour of development at the expense of quality of life, urban form and affordability, issues that have not gone away. At the same time, a growing number of individuals are banking on being able to combine the urbane with the familiar.

Devon Bird is one of them. She opened MODEN in December 2018, building a career back on Vancouver Island after working in corporate retail in Vancouver. “I grew up here…and I had come to Sidney on little daycations with my mom and I felt like in retail, especially in the bricks-and-mortar sector, there was a renaissance happening.”

Shopping, said Bird, is not just an exchange of money for goods. “But it is also an experience and a service and I wanted to create a place where both my mom and I could shop, an ageless, occasion-less store that gave great service, but didn’t come at an exorbitant price.”

Sidney, she added, felt like the natural place for that. “Because I have built so many memories here. I didn’t grow up in Sidney, but this little town just had that kind of energy that it felt like, ‘This is a good place to put down roots.’”

Bird has since moved to Sidney, living in one of the new developments on Third Street, and is currently recruiting her family to move here as well. This personal and professional commitment to Sidney has since deepened with the opening of MODEN Essentials offering lingerie and other products in March 2021, an expansion that was not only quicker than expected, but also fell within the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the obvious question: why expand in the middle of a pandemic?

“Other than just being completely nuts?” she said with a chuckle. “No, I still felt like there is a space for it. I know this was a challenge, I have never been known to make a long-term decision based on a short-term challenge. And to be perfectly honest, when I came here two-and-a-half years ago, there were more spaces for lease than now. If anything, COVID-19 has reaffirmed the assumptions that I had of the community in a much shorter span. I didn’t need to test my business plan over 10 years. This community is really great. It’s supportive, it shops local, it’s an outdoor shopping area.”

This on-the-street vibrancy (which will likely only grow as the density of the downtown core increases) was also one of the things that attracted Alexa and Tristan Fetherston, co-owners of Beacon Brewing along with Alexa’s brother Steven Hardy, to open their business in the commercial ground-floor of the Oceanna Building on Third Street. Starting in home brewing, Tristan has spent the last six years in craft brewing, with the two other members of the trio handling other aspects of the business.

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“We liked that the location in the Oceanna building was in the heart of Sidney, and that Third Street has lots of new and exciting businesses and residents moving in,” they said. “Our location is walkable from anywhere in Sidney, which makes it ideal for a brewery.”

The pending arrival of Beacon Brewery removes Sidney from the quickly shrinking list of communities without a brewery, and the Fetherstons look to grow their business by offering pints, tasting flights and off-sales of their beer along with ciders from Duncan-based Valley Cider and food to both locals and tourists who want to experience Sidney.

“While the majority of our beers will be approachable by everyone, we also plan to have some beers specifically for craft beer enthusiasts,” they said.

This play for a more sophisticated palate is also apparent in the decision of North Saanich’s Fickle Fig Farm Market to open a bistro in Sidney. In fact, the business built the bistro around Boutellant. He arrived in the region by way of Tofino and Greater Vancouver.

Boutellant said it is very validating to see a company make that kind of commitment. “It’s the first time that I have had such a hands-on chef type of job,” he said. “They got me a lot of nice equipment.”

Like so many stories of cross-Atlantic migration, Boutellant’s involves romance. “I followed a girl,” he said with a chuckle. “So when I was in Lyon, I met a girl from North Vancouver and after my training I was ready to move on, so I followed her to North Vancouver.”

While Boutellant is no longer with that person, he fell in love with Canada and eventually found his way back to the country after a brief return to France.

“France is great for pastry, but Canada has something else that is very enjoyable, that is personal growth,” he said.

Living in an English-speaking, still relatively rustic part of Canada that could not be any further away from France and its historic culture has not always been easy for Boutellant.

“I am feeling home-sick often, but I see (the region) at a transition point,” he said. “I feel like there is a high demand for what we are doing in pastry. It’s taking time to get embedded in people’s culture. But I’m confident because the place is moving very fast.”

Bird sees a similar evolution. When she first opened, many told her to target older consumers.

“I thought, yes and no. If all we ever build are retail (stores) and services that gear toward a certain demographic, it is really self-perpetuating, whereas my mission is being really ageless, and an open and comfortable environment for anybody to come in and shop and relate. I have noticed that I get a much younger customer now because the word spreads. I am seeing tons of people coming up from Victoria and we hear people more often now talking about relocating up here.”

The Fetherstons are among those who have walked the talk, having come to Sidney six years ago. Alex’s brother also plans to move to Sidney in the near future. “We have noticed that over the past (five) years, Sidney as well as the Peninsula seems to be attracting younger people,” they said. “There are plenty of new businesses and housing developments that are geared to a younger generation and we think people are noticing the beauty of living outside of the city. We are excited to be a part of the evolving Peninsula for all generations.”

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Beacon Brewing co-owners Steven Hardy, Tristan Fetherston and Alexa Fetherston came to Sidney’s downtown because its growing vibrancy. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)