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The boom of après ski at Big White

From coffee to nightlife, the ski resort has something for everyone
A menu from the early days at Big White. (Cliff Serwa)

This is part of a series of stories celebrating the 60th anniversary of Big White Ski Resort

When Big White opened in 1963, options for dining were scarce on the mountain.

It would be several years later when Brian James arrived from Banff to help run the ski school that he recalled the only place to grab a bite to eat was the day lodge.

James had been managing the ski school at Sunshine Village before making his way to Big White.

“Big White and Silver Star were youngsters at this time. Sunshine was the only place that was really operating as a holiday resort at the time,” said James.

“But, I knew Big White was to be something.”

James remembers arriving at the mountain to the 10 Skiers Motel, which was owned by 10 different people and managed by Doug Mervyn’s father Gill.

As the hill was destined to grow, James saw it as an opportunity to build the Golden Labrador Lodge in 1969, alongside his now ex-wife, which would serve breakfast and dinner.

However, the lodge would be short-lived, and following James’ divorce in 1972 the restaurant would be turned into staff quarters for the ski school.

A new day lodge opened around 1977, James recalls.

“I started managing the day-to-day of the mountain at this time and at this time I brought in a good friend who was a Swiss chef,” he said.

“So, in the day lodge at night we would host theme nights. After après ski, everything would shift and we would do an Italian night, and another night would be a Swiss theme.”

In 1978, the Whitefoot Inn would be built, with smaller lower cost units and from there another day lodge would be constructed near the Ridge Chair.

“One of the Capozzi brothers started a restaurant that was open at night in the new day lodge,” recalled James.

Looking back, James remembers 1977 being the big boom of après ski, with tourists travelling from the coast, the U.S. and Alberta to come to Big White.

“We were creating more jobs in winter than had ever been created here in Kelowna before,” he said.

“We had logging which was a big industry, but we had unemployment at 24 per cent, so the tourism industry changed this dramatically.”

Although no longer at Big White, James still hits the slopes and owns The Village Ski Shop at Silver Star Resort.

Nightlife sparks

The 1980s were a time to party, ski and work – in that order.

That is what Jim Nixon remembers of Big White after arriving at the mountain in the winter of 1979.

By 1980, Nixon had opened his first two restaurants on the mountain – Whiskey Jack’s and The Red Onion – as well as a deli.

Whiskey Jack’s was originally built in a former German-inspired themed building, off of a ski run.

“At that time there were two other restaurants on the mountain, Snowshoe Sam’s which opened in 1979-80. I ran that too at one point for a short time and actually my son owns it today,” explained Nixon.

Whisky Jack’s was designed for après ski, with a lively bar which would be “crazy until midnight,” recalled Nixon.

“We would have a contest every Tuesday, where the ski school would come in to see how fast they could empty a keg. Now that was fun,” he laughed.

By the mid-’90s, more restaurants and options for nightlife were appearing at Big White.

Rose Sexsmith, the former owner of Roses which was located in downtown Kelowna, built Roses on the hill.

Nixon would open McCulloch on the Mountain around the same time.

Accommodation was also developing in the late 1990s, with Black Bear Lodge, the Coast Resort, Legacy Condominiums, Snowpines Estates, White Crystal Inn and the Ridge Day Lodge all taking shape.

“Overall, my time at Big White was great. I met so many people and it propelled me into the business person I became. It was the start of everything,” said Nixon.

He added the clientele was also second to none and credits the great people who came to the mountain for creating the atmosphere seen today at Big White.

A cup of Joe

John Mooney came to Big White during the roaring 1980s and landed a job at Snowshoe Sams.

He had always been a part of the food and beverage industry, but Big White would provide a different opportunity.

Leaving the city, he said the mountain offered a “zest for life,” with people on holidays who were happy to be there.

It wouldn’t be long before Mooney would move up in the world, taking a position with the mountain as director of sales and marketing.

A few years later, Mooney would start his own endeavours. Over the course of 20 years, he would operate seven different coffee shops or restaurants.

He would be the first to open a coffee shop on the mountain, Bean-Os.

“Starbucks had just sort of landed in Canada, right around 1996, and it was really gaining a share of the marketplace,” Mooney said.

“We saw that coffee culture, which was also at the start of the wave of Australian guests coming and they were complete coffee culture people.”

From coffee to beer, Mooney would then open the Bull Wheel, selling a few years later before buying Santè Bar and Grill from the White Crystal Inn and returning the Bull Wheel to the hill.

Mooney recently sold the Bull Wheel to his chef of 10 years.

“I had three coffee shops at the same time and I had two pubs, a bakery and a fine dining restaurant. I still have a fine dining restaurant, Six Degrees Bistro, and I converted the bakery to a pizza joint,” explained Mooney.

When the Okanagan wine industry started to shine around 2009, Mooney took that as a sign to create a fine dining experience at Big White.

“We had a chef who had worked with Cirque du Soleil and cooked for people who worked there and set up temporary kitchens with local products.

“So, we ran off that. We had a fine dining restaurant for about seven or eight years, that served local products.

“But, the basis was the wine list, only Okanagan wine. We were probably the first to have only Okanagan wines. We would do wine tastings and seminars on the weekends.”

Big White was built with the concept of being a fun place, said Mooney, where people wanted to invest in the future of the mountain.

“It’s about community up there. I was on the fire department for 10 years, I helped start the chamber of commerce.

“I was the parent advisory council president for 10 years. We built that school, with eight or more couples with the same mindset. We all benefited from building this community.”

Jen Zielinski

About the Author: Jen Zielinski

Graduated from the broadcast journalism program at BCIT. Also holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science and sociology from Thompson Rivers University.
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