A longtime Crescent Beach business, known for its fantastic fare and atmosphere and even preparing in-flight food for the Vancouver Canucks and other National Hockey League (NHL) teams, is up for sale.
The Sunflower Café, featuring organic, healthy offerings and homestyle cooking, has been operating at the Beecher Street location for more than 20 years; business owners Kathie Buote and Sym Thiele took over from the previous owner in 2006.
The café is constantly busy and often has lineups out the door, and offers catering services as well as home-cooked, frozen meals that patrons can take home with them.
One of the unique aspect about the café’s catering is one of its main clients: The NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.
Thiele knew someone who was “in charge of all things Canucks” when the team flies out of Vancouver’s YVR Airport, using Air Canada’s private jet program. In 2011, they asked if she and Buote would be interested in providing the in-flight food for the team.
They said yes.
“It worked out,” Thiele said, noting that, usually she or her husband will drive the food delivery right onto the south terminal tarmac.
“We’ve always gone by the motto that you’re only as good as your last meal,” she said modestly, when asked how the team likes the food, but by the next year, with some of her U.S. contacts, they had added the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and San José Sharks to their catering client list and terminal deliveries.
Now, “we usually carry between 10-15 NHL teams each season” (in addition to the Canucks), with most teams departing from the south terminal.
With plenty of fresh, organic ingredients, fruits and vegetables, the in-flight menus feature everything from short ribs and filet mignon to grilled halibut, chicken cordon bleu or shepherd’s pie.
“They’re usually given a choice – beef, chicken or fish,” Thiele said.
“Depending on the teams’ travel schedules, we usually provide food for anywhere between 30 and 50 flights a season.”
The original owner of the business, who is Ukrainian, started the Sunflower Café in 1999, with a focus on organics and healthy, local food.
“Some of the recipes – that we still use – were from her mother,” Thiele said.
“It was real food – organic, free-run, roasted meats – not processed meats, is used for sandwiches… she even used to have a little produce section in the back,” she recalled.
The produce section disappeared as the café expanded, but Thiele and Buote, who is a holistic nutritionist and a master herbalist, embraced the concept the previous owner started with the Sunflower Café.
“What you gather is humanely raised, organically grown and locally grown wherever possible,” Thiele explained, noting they use Mary’s Garden, a South Surrey garden known for its fresh, “picked-daily” produce grown without pesticides, and serve Salt Spring Island’s Fair Trade coffee.
Thiele and Buote are both transplants from the Prairies, with Buote originally hailing from Winnipeg and Thiele moving to B.C. with her family from Regina, Sask. when she was four.
With a business education and sales and marketing background, Thiele said owning a restaurant has been something she and Buote, who was a longtime kitchen manager at The Old Spaghetti Factory in New Westminster, have always wanted to do.
Buote joined Thiele as her business partner in 2012, after her previous partner decided to pursue other things, Thiele said.
They managed to somehow, keep things going during the COVID-19 pandemic, still providing take-out food, pre-cooked, take-home meals, and creating a colourful back patio to match the café’s vibrant interior, which features works by local artists on its brightly painted walls.
During that time, when teams were allowed to travel in pods, they could still provide in-flight catering to the Canadian NHL clients who flew out of YVR,
Now, however, she and Buote both feel it’s time to move on.
“Kathie plans to retire and spend time with her many friends, family and grandchildren,” Thiele said.
As for herself, she’s not sure what she’ll do next.
“I won’t figure that out until I have space in my life to figure it out.”
She is pleased that she got to work with both of her children, a daughter and son who are now both older and pursuing other passions.
As she reflected on the many years of owning the café, her eyes glistened a little with unshed emotion.
“There are so many, many, wonderful people – staff and customers… the young people we’ve had working for us over the years have been phenomenal. They’re the most loyal, smartest, nicest people – I’ll miss that more than anything,” she said.
“It gives you hope for the future.”
Café regular Susan Richards de Wit and Bob de Wit, like Thiele and Buote, are hopeful that whoever purchases the business will keep it running as the Sunflower Café.
“What we love about the Sunflower Café is the organic, homestyle cooking that is dependably delicious but also the friendly, welcoming Crescent Beach vibe that we love so much. We often pick up their frozen soups and other meals as well visiting the Sunflower. During COVID, Sym and Kathie did a great job of renovating and adding an outdoor restaurant space, which was lovely,” Richards de Wit said.
“While we are sad to see it change hands we are so grateful to Sym and Kathie, who have really created a community, a place to eat that we can rely on to have whole foods, who are friends and welcome you like a community does.”
Her husband agreed.
“I’ve always been amazed how such a simple concept: fresh, organic ingredients put together in a homestyle fashion, could be so unique. It should be easy to copy but I’ve never come across another place so committed to such consistent excellence!”
Thiele says she and Buote are so grateful to all of the community and everyone who helped support their existence all these years.
“The friendships with the staff and the relationships with the customers – some of the laughs we’ve had, the memories – the community just has such great, supportive people and we will both miss that.”