After four decades, the Royal Coachman is closing its doors on Monday.
The place is a local landmark, right down to its emblem, a fishing fly called the Royal Coachman, reputed to be the type favoured by legendary fly fisherman and author Roderick Haig-Brown, who lived in Campbell River.
The iconic neighbourhood pub declined swiftly after reports emerged about health violations in its restaurant facilities. But one of the co-owners says people on social media blew those problems out of proportion, leading to the untimely demise of a local institution.
The place is well-loved by people like Sue Beatty, whose parents took her there for dinner on her 19th birthday. Years later, she still remembers what she had for supper.
“I had escargot and red wine with hamburgers,” she said on Tuesday, sitting around a table at the Coachman with family members.
That was her first time at the Coachman, she said, “and now maybe [it’s] the last time.”
Beatty lives in Port McNeill, where she’s a school teacher. Whenever she visits her parents, who live within walking distance of the Coachman, they go there for dinner.
The closure is part of a steady decline of gathering places in the area, said Ron DeMill, her father. He and his wife Louise have lived in the neighbourhood for nearly three decades.
“We used to have five pubs close to our residence,” he said, as he listed places that have closed over the years, including the Willows Pub and the Marina Inn.
“I’m gonna miss it,” said Paula DeMill, Sue’s sister. She visits the pub every month or two.
Celebrating your 19th birthday at the Coachman is a time-honoured tradition, said Stu Murray, the pub’s longtime bartender.
“It was a rite of passage,” he said.
He told the Mirror that’s he’s seen three generations of patrons come through since he started working there.
He’s already landed new bartending job at the Riptide, but the change comes as a shock after working at the Coachman for 28 years under three sets of owners.
“I always thought I’d retire here,” he said.
The place is steeped in nostalgia for Murray. Like in the television show Cheers, which was set in a similarly cozy and wood-panelled pub in Boston, the Coachman has a close-knit feeling. It’s a place “where everybody knows your name,” said Murray.
The Coachman’s location, situated squarely in a residential area, contributed to that community feeling. Before it opened, Murray recalled, practically everything was downtown.
“There was nothing this way,” he said.
After the place became established as the neighbourhood pub, events at the Coachman punctuated the changing seasons, with revellers descending on it for major sporting events and holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve.
“It was always full,” he said.
How much of an institution was it? It became a local point of reference for people giving directions.
“There was ads in the paper, you know, ‘three blocks from the Coachman,’ because everyone in town knew where the Coachman was,” he said.
Catherine Welsh, a waitress at the Coachman, also stressed the close-knit feeling at the pub as she started one of her last shifts on Tuesday.
“This is a family-orientated place, and I’m going to miss it,” she said. Welsh isn’t worried about what she’s going to do next: she’s a mortgage broker and took shifts at the Coachman on the side.
Asked to give her professional assessment of the Tudor-style pub’s value, she declined to put a price on it, but said “it’s a valuable property.”
That should be encouraging for co-owners Nasir Ladha and Mumtaz Chatur, who are currently looking for someone to take over the business.
Ladha, who bought the Coachman in 2015, said that business dropped significantly after reports of a rodent infestation emerged on social media last July, notably on the popular Facebook forum called Campbell River Rant, Rave and Randomness.
“Social media was a big part of what’s going down,” said Ladha.
He feels that some online commenters treated the business unfairly. The owners hired an exterminator who dealt with the problem, he said, but rumours persisted online.
“Even then, once the problem was cleared, people still went on and on about it,” he said.
A routine inspection by health authorities in October gave the Coachman a “low hazard rating” and indicated that a pest infestation “has been brought under control.”
But the damage was done. In December, usually a busy time marked by Christmas parties at the pub, there were “a lot of cancellations,” Ladha said.
He declined to disclose specific numbers, but said falling revenues led to major cutbacks in staff hours. That caused service quality to suffer, he said.
Business was just starting to climb back when a local outbreak of the Norwalk virus hit in June. Ladha said he reached out to the health inspector to check the place out, but that a customer had already registered a complaint after becoming sick.
An inspection report from the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) indicates that six people became ill after dining at the Coachman on June 2. Staff members had also fallen ill; three of them were off work with symptoms similar to those in the complaint.
The restaurant was deemed to have committed a “critical violation” of health regulations, and was ordered to take steps like preparing a written health policy for employees.
The Coachman closed voluntarily on June 6 and VIHA gave it the green light to re-open the next day.
“We felt that we did the noble thing by closing the place down, disinfecting it, making sure it’s all clean, getting the inspector in to make sure everything else meets the standards,” Ladha said.
A follow-up inspection gave it a “moderate” hazard rating. According to VIHA, that indicates the facility was mostly in line with regulations, but that some issues remained “to ensure long-term protection of public health.” But the inspector reported no violations.
Still, news about the sicknesses revived talk of a rodent infestation, said Ladha. It was the last nail in the coffin, and the clientele quickly dropped away.
Despite the advent of summer, usually a profitable time of year for the Coachman, with its garden well-shaded by trees and its gazebo, the business was untenable.
“We couldn’t breathe anymore,” he said.
Ladha said he recognizes how iconic the Coachman is for Campbell River, and hopes it will re-open under new ownership. He noted the beer and wine store will remain open.
“The Coachman is a big cornerstone of Campbell River,” he said. “It’s been there for the longest time.”