The vision for downtown Vancouver’s Columbia Food Park has always been clear: transform the abandoned bus station waiting area on Seventh Street into an outdoor food destination and community hangout.
It’s taken two years of slow and difficult work, but earlier this month the park hit an important milestone on the road to turning the vision in to a reality: the official opening of longtime vendor-in-waiting Slow Fox Chili Parlor.
“We’ve come a long way in the last year,” park founder Alex Mickle said.
The arrival of Slow Fox doesn’t signal completion of the food park, but it does mean the project has cleared what Mickle describes as its biggest hurdle: building a commercial-grade kitchen from scratch.
The kitchen project
Mickle, a Vancouver resident who works downtown at DiscoverOrg, developed the food park idea with co-founder Kylan Johnson. In late 2016, they began renting the former C-Tran bus ticket office at 108 E. Seventh St. and the vacant 4,500-square-foot connected courtyard.
They quickly found two eager food vendor partners: AndraLea Kieswether (nee Mack) who debuted her Mack Shack breakfast burrito cart in the summer of 2017, and Derek Saner, who was looking for a location to launch his planned chili kitchen.
Mack’s mobile cart was able to launch right away. But Saner’s slow-cooked chili recipes needed a full kitchen to operate. The fledgling Columbia Food Park had nothing of the sort.
Mickle opted to build the kitchen inside the rear wing of the former bus depot’s ticket office, so the outer walls were already in place. He had to bring in a bulldozer to demolish the internal walls, and then build a new customer-facing outer wall section and service window.
The kitchen project also included the creation of two restrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Construction began in late 2018 and wrapped up in late July.
Mickle said the build-out has occupied the majority of his attention for the past year, but there have been other smaller changes to the courtyard as well. The park has gained five new picnic tables, new signs and a wall-size white board where customers can write inspirational quotes.
“It’s huge and super exciting,” said Kieswether’s sister Michaela Mack, who has been helping run the cart while Kieswether welcomes a new baby. “I have a lot of faith that this place is going to really get rolling soon.”
Slow Fox arrives
Slow Fox officially opened Aug. 2, less than two weeks after completion of the kitchen.
Saner has worked for years in the Portland food scene, including a five-year stint at the popular East Burnside Street brunch spot Screen Door. About six years ago, he began developing his own restaurant concept that would focus on chili and other slow-cooked comfort foods.
Saner said the brand’s name is partially inspired by the food scene in his home state of Kentucky, where local comfort food restaurants sometimes use the descriptor “Chili Parlor.”
“I love slow-cooked foods,” he said. “Comfort food is never going to go out of style.”
He debuted the menu as a pop-up spot called Portland Chili Parlor, and received a strong enough reception to begin searching for a more permanent location. He connected with Mickle and Johnson in 2017 and became convinced that their vision of a courtyard food park with a full kitchen would be the perfect spot to set up shop permanently.
Of course, opening in Vancouver would require a name change. Saner said Vancouver Chili Parlor just didn’t have the same ring, so he eventually came up with Slow Fox.
The name is partially meant to catch people’s attention due to its incongruity. Foxes aren’t typically thought of as slow. Saner said it also highlights the core slow-cooked chili dishes, and is intended to remind customers to take their time and enjoy themselves.
Saner said he keeps multiple varieties of chili simmering throughout the day, so even though the chili itself is slow cooked, the food service is fast.
After just a week of operations, “I’m getting a lot of repeat customers,” Saner said.
Taproom coming soon
Mickle plans further expansion of Columbia Food Park, including the addition of a taproom within the next six months.
The courtyard’s enclosed design will allow it to be licensed as an outdoor alcohol venue, Mickle said.
The picnic tables seat up to 30 people right now, but there’s room to grow. Mickle said the courtyard’s maximum occupancy is 189 people.
“It’s always been the vision of the park for it to be a community space,” he said.
Mickle plans to eventually host music acts and other events. He said he’s thought about adding a play structure to one corner of the courtyard to make the venue more kid-friendly.
It’s easy to see the pitch for the food park in bright summer sunshine. Mickle said he’s also confident that the park will remain a destination during the rainy winter months. Most of the picnic tables are under a plastic roof, and he plans to add more canopy tents and possibly a row of heaters.
The courtyard has room for one more food vendor. Mickle said he’s received multiple inquiries, but he wants to wait for the right complement for Mack Shack and Slow Fox.
Right now the park is open whenever either of the two vendors are open. Mickle said once the taproom is in place, he wants the park to be open all day with its own set hours.