Specialty

All in the Family

Everyone loves supporting a family-run business, but what’s it like to be a part of one? We talked to Nico Van Keulen, Erik Kavanagh and Philip Aguirre to find out.

Nico Van Keulen of Donia Farms is the third generation of Van Keulens to contribute to the dairy farm’s thriving success. The farm life is all he’s ever known and all he can imagine in the future.

Of course, having a boss who’s also your parent comes with benefits and disadvantages.

“I get to be more involved in making big decisions on the farm than I would as a regular employee.” said Van Keulen. “My Dad values my brothers’ and my opinions.”

Growing up on his family’s farm gave him the opportunity to learn about business from a very young age. “It was an everyday discussion,” Van Keulen reflected. “From watching my Dad, I learned the importance of caring about your employees and treating everyone you work with fairly.”

And the downside?

“There is no separation between work and family; sometimes it’s great and other times not as much,” said Van Keulen.

Philip Aguirre of the Old Surrey Restaurant and Bistro 72 believes he was destined to take the reigns of his family’s business, though it took a degree in Commerce, a brief stint as an accountant, and a spontaneous move to France as an adventurous twenty-something to figure it out.

“I worked at a small French restaurant in St Jean de Luz and taught at the local culinary school in the neighbouring city of Biarritz,” he explained. “This happened to be the same area where my father was born and started his journey. Coincidence? I think not. France is where the lure of the family business was rekindled and I came back into my foreshadowed destiny.” Aguirre subsequently took ownership from his parents in 2007.

Aguirre recalls growing up with a father who loved westerns: “Like most immigrant boomers he thought Clint Eastwood was a role model! The 1966 classic movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly really hits home with the ever so delicate dance of having a family business. Fantastically, the roles reversed when I took ownership in 2007.” Aguirre’s parents retired from the hectic, all-consuming restaurant industry in 2007, but he knows that they’re never more than an encouraging phone call away. As he pointed out: “No one understands the difficulties that you are going through like a parent and a previous owner.”

Sometimes destiny makes your career choice for you. And sometimes, working for the family business is a great way to earn money during university. That’s the case for Erik Kavanagh, who works at his parent’s restaurant, Hooked Fish Bar while studying at SFU.

“I began working at Hooked as a stubborn dishwasher the year we opened,” he told us. “I wanted to stay behind the kitchen doors and quite honestly, away from the serving side of the industry, afraid of dealing with customers fact to face. My mom convinced me to give serving a try, stressing the benefits of lucrative tip money. I began as a tall and awkward boy inching up to tables, forcing some sort of weird and confusing conversation, while looking over my shoulder for some mamma bear relief. But slowly I started to enjoy it.”

As for knowing when and how to separate he role of ‘child’ and ’employee’, having firm ground rules is a good place to start.

“The two definitely overlap.” Kavanagh admitted, “but we try and keep any personal conversations outside the workplace. Being able to differentiate between the two comes from knowing how to be professional with your parents versus acting immature and self-indulgent. They aren’t Dad and Mom at work. They’re John and Francina, which is still strange to say, but this is their business and I must fit into their business regime like any other employee.”

Kavanagh also says he’s learned plenty from working alongside his parents, like the importance of honesty, integrity, quality and consistency. It’s these values that permeate Surrey’s culinary community – a tight-knit, flourishing community that we like to think is just like a family… for those members who call their boss ‘dad’, and for those who don’t!

Photo credit: Sam Warner of the Donia Farms Van Keulen family.

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