Fort Cafe co-owners

Fort Cafe co-owners

Curtain falls on beloved arts venue

Fort Café to close in December; owners hope to channel outpouring of community support into new location

A day after the news broke that the Fort Café is set to close, its owners were able to laugh about the good times they’ve shared at the eclectic arts hub, one of the last easily accessible venues in Victoria for up-and-coming performers of all kinds.

When Benji Duke, Melissa Byrnes and Jon Perkins – who had worked together at the previous Fort Street Café in the same location – purchased the business in 2007, the café looked nothing like the groovy basement haunt that exists today.

Along with donated labour from friends and family, the trio replaced its drop ceiling, bisecting wall, and cafeteria-style array of disused fridges with pea green walls and board games, not unlike your dad’s basement where you can hang out and feel good, Duke said.

A key feature: the stage – an element of Byrnes’ interior design that Duke couldn’t help but constantly admire when it was installed a year after the business opened.

“It was a treat,” Perkins said of the early days after the stage was installed. “It was amazing. (Duke) would just hang out with it.”

“We’re not builders,” Byrnes said. “So when something like this happens, it’s quite rewarding.”

The small stage – built by Perkins’ stepfather and a friend – was christened by 54-40’s Neil Osborne exactly one year after the café opened, but it’s better known for hosting smaller acts.

For the last six years, indie bands, amateur comedians and fringe artists have had a chance to perform at the café, which also serves a full menu. Following landlord Garnett Rancier’s decision not to renew their lease, the owners fear independent artists in the city will be left without another accessible venue to get in front of an audience.

“It’s a relaxed atmosphere that’s open to everybody,” Byrnes said. “It’s not clean, slick and sterile. It’s warm in lots of different senses of the word.”

Rancier has been clear his decision is final and the doors will close one last time Dec. 15. The owners aren’t about to abandon the business, which employs about a dozen people and has become profitable within the last year.

“It’s finally working,” Duke said. “We’ve found the Holy Grail of an independent music venue with liquor, food and all-ages and it’s working – now it’s going to stop? That’s the most heartbreaking thing. We’ve got it down and now it’s disappearing.”

“We don’t feel it’s time to just give up,” Perkins said. “We’re not done. Victoria needs what we provide.”

Since the news hit, the café has been flooded with support from across the country. Social media has lit up with those saddened by the news, both locals and acts who have performed in The Fort and can’t bear the thought of its closure.

“I feel bad,” said Rancier, who cited concerns over safe access to emergency evacuation as one of the primary factors behind his decision. “I appreciate and respect what they’ve done there, but they’ve changed from a breakfast and lunch café into an entertainment venue with alcohol which does not fit the premise I’ve rented it under. … I’m sorry to see them go and I hope they succeed in finding a more suitable location that will suit their needs better.”

And while Byrnes, Perkins and Duke were initially shocked and dismayed, they’re not wasting their final weeks in the café weighted down by negativity, opting instead to focus on the positive history they’ve had at The Fort.

The team is currently gauging support and brainstorming the possibility of relocating the business in which they estimate they’ve invested between $80,000 and $90,000 since opening. But before they can entertain the idea of launching elsewhere, they’re first tasked with covering about $10,000 in closing costs.

The 80-person venue has seen more than 400 bands, 60 charities, and 3,300 comedians, actors, and stage performers, through its doors. The Fort has returned an estimated $300,000 in cover charge profits to artists, with many of the bands – such as Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, Acres of Lions, MeatDraw or Hank & Lily – staging their early performances at the café before garnering success outside of the city.

Over the years, The Fort has also hosted the much-loved Sunday Lowdown, The Friday Quiz, Open Stage, The Underground Comedy Fort and the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival.

“We’re asking for people to think about what it means to them and what it means if it isn’t here,” Duke said. “We love this stage and we’d really love to have another one,” Duke said.

To keep up with The Fort Café’s calendar of events and updates on fundraising activities, visit facebook.com/Fortcafe.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Various Victoria locations were hit with a slew of anti-bylaw graffiti Wednesday. This image has been altered to cover up profane language. (Submitted photo)
UPDATED: Slew of anti-bylaw graffiti an ‘unacceptable’ form of communication says Victoria mayor, police

Downtown businesses, bylaw office and Ministry of Finance vandalized Wednesday morning

The Gordon Head Recreation Centre stands in as the Quimper Regional Hospital on Feb. 23 for filming Maid, a 10-part Netflix series. (Greg Sutton/District of Saanich)
Netflix transforms Saanich recreation centre into hospital for filming

Facility was closed to public Feb. 23 for filming of Maid

Greg Chow is the 2021 Local Hero of the Year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Fighting fire a family affair for Colwood Assistant Chief Greg Chow

With 38 years of service, Greg Chow is the 2021 Hero of the Year

This rendering shows plans for the new “flyover”overpass connecting northbound traffic on Highway 17 heading west on Keating Cross Road. Plans currently seeking public input propose two options for the median along Keating Cross Road. Option 1 will prevent left turns onto Tamany Drive and Buena Vista Road. Option 2 (seen here)will allow for left turns onto Tamany Drive and Bujena Vista Road. (Screencap/Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Public asked for comment on proposed overpass for Pat Bay in Central Saanich

New flyover overpass proposed for Highway 17 and Keating Cross Road

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Feb. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media File Photo)
POLL: Are you struggling with Greater Victoria’s cost of housing?

While Victoria remains one of the most expensive cities in the country… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

Photograph By @KAYLAXANDERSON
VIDEO: Lynx grabs lunch in Kamloops

A lynx surprises a group of ducks and picks one off for lunch

When his owner had knee surgery, Kevin, 2, was able to continue to go for walks thanks to volunteers from Elder Dog Canada. (Contributed photo)
B.C. woman has nothing but praise for Elder Dog Canada

National organization has a fleet of volunteer walkers ready, but needs more clients to serve

Two women were arrested in Nanaimo for refusing to wear masks and causing disturbance on a BC Ferries vessel. (File photo)
B.C. ferry passengers arrested and fined for disturbance, refusing to wear masks

Police said woman threatened their pensions in Feb. 21 incident aboard Nanaimo-bound boat

A Nanaimo RCMP vehicle in the Woodgrove Centre parking lot. (News Bulletin file photo)
Woman groped by stranger in mall parking lot in Nanaimo

Incident happened near bus loop Saturday, Feb. 20, at about 4:45 p.m.

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

Most Read