Union Pacific Coffee Co.

“Every month since we have opened our doors, sales have increased and, within two years, the business is debt free.”

Opening a café downtown in 2006 was a homecoming for Jim Walmsley, who went to Oak Bay high school, then left town for Vancouver’s busy restaurant scene. He worked for “a lot of restaurants” there, including Cactus Club and the Sequoia group, mostly behind the bar. Walmsley saw other restaurant operators doing well and wanted more than to be just an employee.

At Union Pacific, he did the interior design, made the tables, and scoured the auctions for equipment. He found some warehouse flooring on sale in Vancouver and made the café counters from the recycled wood. He borrowed from his mother, Lynn Walmsley (she still makes the Union Pacific’s carrot cake), cashed in his RRSPs, and maxed out three credit cards to open the cafe.

“I started working 18 hours a day for the first year and a half.” But it’s resulted in a place of his own, which has been his main motivation. “Nothing gets done unless you do it,” says Walmsley. For customers, the café is about food and drink, but, as owner, he “takes it home” — payroll, marketing, dealing with suppliers, making sure taxes are up to date.

Taking the big step to open his own place was “good — I’m definitely glad we did it.”
Everyone’s selling coffee downtown, and Walmsley says he’s not occupying a niche but slugging it out “in a battleground of an oversaturated market.” There are half a dozen competitors within two blocks. To compete in the crowded field, he has a café with a difference. During the day, Union Pacific Coffee has a steady stream of customers stepping up to the counter for lattes and dark roast. But, late in the day, the chalkboard with menu items and prices swings up to reveal wine racks. Table service starts at 6 p.m.

UP After Dark is what Walmsley calls it in the evenings, Wednesday through Saturday, where customers can order a glass of wine and appetizers.
“We are a simple coffee house by day and a cured meat and artisanal cheese tasting room by night,” is how he describes Union Pacific’s dual personality.

He had a liquor licence from the start but waited to open the second business until the café side was established and doing well. “Slowly but surely, the night business is taking off.”

With the café located on the edge of downtown behind Chinatown’s bustling block of Fisgard Street, Walmsley saw the initial hard work pay off. Business grew steadily every month and Union Pacific was debt-free after two years, he says.

“Hopefully we’ll be here for a long time,” says Walmsley.