By Dan Rankin
It won’t be long now before a new restaurant that specializes in tacos and grilled favourites (and that resembles a Volkswagen Microbus) cruises its way onto the St. Marys culinary scene.
Behind the wheel of this new take on takeaway grub is Sean Camp, owner of Lucid Musings Photography and also the man responsible for organizing next month’s River Rock Festival. He hopes to open the restaurant to the public before the end of July so it can be road-ready before River Rock 2016 roars to life on Aug. 13.
Camp started moving forward with the idea to open a restaurant last fall, initially looking at opening a sit-down restaurant focused on tapas, colourful Spanish-style appetizers served by the plateful.
“We looked at a few locations downtown but it didn’t come through, so I decided to step back and think about it some more,” he said. He conferred with some friends in the restaurant business in Stratford and Toronto, who told him a foodtruck-style takeaway business would be an easier sell in St. Marys.
So he settled on tacos, which could still be made using primarily ingredients – chicken, pork, beef, cheese and produce – from within a 100 mile radius. That’s a concept Camp hopes to stick to as closely as possible with his menu; he was even toying with naming the place after the concept: “The 100.”
“Camper is my nickname, but I had tossed that name aside and was leaning towards ‘The 100’,” he said. “But Erin Reynolds, my girlfriend who is one of the partners in the business, was talking to her friends at work, and they said it felt like a stationary foodtruck vibe, and the name ‘Camper’ came up again.”
When his artist friends Matt Brenner and Mandy Verge started brainstorming about painting the exterior of the old Pathway building on Jones Street East in the style of a Volkswagen split-window Microbus, there was no going back. Now, with a renovated patio, new fences and a popping paint job, Camp believes they have something that “brings this location to life, something that looks like nothing else in St. Marys.”
Inside The Camper, Camp has nearly completed top-to-bottom renovations that began in April and have included, but were not limited to, a gleaming new kitchen, all new drywall, a VW-inspired counter, a fresh coat of paint, and a new public bathroom.
“It was always a seasonal business, so we also had to install a heater, because this will be a year-round operation,” he said. “We’ve got some funky blue and yellow patio furniture, and we’ve been approved to have seating for 10 on the patio, and then space for additional stand up eating on our two new stand-up bars.”
Leading the way in the kitchen will be Chef Mike Johnson. Originally from London, Johnson is a Stratford Chef School graduate with experience in kitchens in Stratford, Toronto and Montreal, Camp said.
As well as offering tacos and a selection of grilled sides, Camp intends to offer a week’s worth of daily specials including fish taco Fridays, as well as burgers and Perth Pork Product sausages, to name a few. Shelves inside the restaurant will also showcase some local wares not available at other St. Marys stores, he said, such as mugs, glassware and preserves.
Camp said a license to sell alcohol is “not in the cards,” for The Camper at this time, “but, on that note, we do have big plans as far as having events.”
“What we’d like to do is have our grand opening at the beginning of September, and block off some of this back parking lot from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm on a Friday, get an event license, have a local brewery or someone in, and live music, and have an event down here,” he said, adding that, during patio season, that would be something he’d like to do on a monthly basis.
“Something else we think would be a natural fit would be having a VW convention here,” he said. “It would be great to have people from town and from out of town bring their VW buses and make a day of it.”
Tentative hours for The Camper, which is aiming to open before the end of July, will be 11:00 am to 7:00 pm from Tuesday to Thursday, 11:00 am to 8:00 pm Fridays and Saturdays and noon until 6:00 pm on Sundays.
On Aug. 13, The Camper Restaurant will be closed, as Camp intends to take his grills on the road to serve food at the River Rock Festival, at 1932 Perth Road 137 in Perth South.