When UBC MBA grad Tim Yu set out to re-open UBC’s Koerner’s Pub, he knew he wasn’t just bringing back a campus bar, but raising the stakes with great food, stylish décor and a sunlit patio.
“I wanted to make something that would be successful on Main Street or in Gastown,” says the Sauder grad, who wants to surprise diners with menu items that would impress Vancouver’s food cart connoisseurs. “Everyone told me that students are cheap, and they don’t care about quality so we shouldn’t care. But I wanted to give good value. Yes, we’re not doing a six-dollar burger, but we’re doing a 12-dollar burger that’s awesome,” he says.
And you can feel good about eating it, he says, explaining that he and his team have worked hard to obtain organic and free range food from local sources such as UBC Farm. Their menu goes beyond standard pub fare, featuring items like pork belly sliders in Chinese steamed buns and pho nachos (the menu assures diners that “you’ll get what the hype is about pho-sho”).
A business opportunity spotted
The previous incarnation of Koerner’s shut down in 2011 because of money troubles, when Yu was halfway through his MBA at Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School. When he and a few classmates helped the UBC Graduate Students’ Society, which oversaw the old pub, try to salvage its finances, Yu began to see what he could do with the place, and the potential business opportunity it held.
Yu, who completed his undergrad at UBC before pursuing an MBA, says he always thought it was a shame that most UBC students would leave campus in the evenings bound for bars downtown. “I felt like there wasn’t really a local on campus, a place you could spend a long time at,” he says. “I always wanted something a little better on campus.”
After graduating, he worked as a marketing director – marketing was his focus at Sauder – at Recon Instruments, a booming start-up that spawned from an MBA class at Sauder. But he kept his ears open for news about the future of Koerner’s, so as soon as they announced a request for proposal, he seized his chance and put forth a submission.
Branding with nod to history
Unlike some of his colleagues at Recon, Yu didn’t study to be an entrepreneur, so starting a business was a big shift for him. But he says a lot of the business tools he learned at Sauder helped him recognize the opportunity. “And having a marketing background certainly helped in rebranding Koerner’s – making it something that students can relate to,” he says. “If you look at the old brand, it wasn’t really a brand – we just inherited the name.”
And so he investigated that name, and was intrigued by what he learned. The Koerners were a Jewish family that fled Nazi-controlled central Europe in 1938; Leon Koerner flew out of Prague just hours before the airport was closed to civilians. Once in Vancouver, the family began a lumber business, working with hemlock – but they called it Alaska Pine, because hemlock was viewed like a weed then. “They basically rebranded hemlock,” Yu says – so he took their lead and rebranded Koerner’s.
The gastropub’s walls are panelled with old-growth hemlock, and Yu installed light fixtures inscribed with the Alaska Pine Company name. “It’s subtle stuff, but it helps to build a story and add depth,” Yu says. “I wanted to marry the old and the new. I think that’s what universities are all about.”
Adding his own touch to his alma mater
Yu says many of the connections he made as a student at UBC have given him a big boost. “It’s been great having support from my Sauder profs – some of them have been throwing me a few ideas,” he says. “And some of them have even become regulars.”
Perhaps it’s the fact Yu didn’t study to become an entrepreneur that explains why he’s been taking a different approach to running a restaurant, with a unique menu, West Coast style, and Yu’s hands-on approach – literally. When he installed long wooden tables, designed to foster face-to-face conversations, he built every one of them by hand. And it’s paying off – business has been exceeding Yu’s expectations since they re-opened Koerner’s.
Yu says it’s been hugely satisfying to add his own touch to UBC’s campus culture.
“I knew from day one what I wanted to make this place,” he says. “And now it’s exactly how I’d pictured it. It’s pretty awesome.”