In my final year of college, a new presence introduced itself into our community life that threatened not only the restaurant but the great social experiment that Dad especially had been undertaking.
At first it was almost imperceptible, lost in the new wave of digital technologies, a global Internet, and powerful tech companies determined to force the world into a new way of communicating and learning.
The Third Place responded to this bold new presence by adapting its business model – just as everyone else was doing. The problem was that it was viewed with suspicion by a new generation bristling with energy and often anger at the old order. They were a new generation that had watched jobs disappear, were frequently employed in precarious or vulnerable jobs with few benefits, and more often than not couldn’t afford a house. I suppose they viewed themselves as something of a cursed generation, given that they were the first in a long time, if ever, who couldn’t acquire a prosperity greater than the generation that had preceded them.
And for some reason much of the anger of these new activists centred on the Baby Boomers – those who arrived after World War Two and who never paid such a collective sacrifice, and before the Generation Xers and the Millennials. Dad had been one of the first Boomers, born in 1948, yet despite his proximity to the end of the Second World War and his own peacekeeping military service, he somehow got lumped in with those of later years who were more categorized as materialistic and wasters.
Perhaps what made the Third Place a subject of scorn among the newer generations was its success. It really had no true competitors. Sure, there were other successful eating establishments, but none that really built their operation on the idea of enlightened citizenship. Such places were built on business models emphasizing service and the bottom line. The Third Place rose out of a sense of civic responsibility and an ideology. It was not only unique, but a proven success.
It took us a bit of time but eventually we persuaded Dad to invest in a website that would provide an online menu, prices, and a Google map to point out the restaurant’s location. We even flirted with some online postings regarding specials, but he never took to it. The way he saw it, word of mouth was the most important form of advertising and who could argue? Eventually we just settled on the website that both Daisy and I kept up to date, giving it a splash of renewal every year or so.
One day Dad was visited by an online newspaper editor from the local university. No one thought anything of it. We watched as he met at a corner table with the journalist, engaged in quiet but intense conversation as the rest of us served customers at the various tables.
My first clue that something had gone wrong came when a college friend asked if I had read the column on my Dad that had come out that morning. “Don’t think you’ll like it,” she said cautiously. “Personally, I think it’s crap.”
I linked to the story on my phone as I sat in class waiting for the professor to arrive. I found my spirit on edge as I pored over the review.
In what can only be described as a throwback to a more nostalgic era that really didn’t exist, I watched as customers dug into the standard fare of food choices and wondered how the old house we were in had such a loyal following. Then I interviewed the owner, Everton Overly, and it quickly became clear. Overly, possessed with an abundance of grey hair talks, of how he started the restaurant up years earlier and based on the premise that citizens would engage in the kind of conversations that dealt with community problems and opportunities.
“That’s why I’m here,” I said, “to see how you accomplish it.”
What was clear during our discussion was that Overly at no point had any plans to engage the online community. He mumbled something about a website, but that was it.
“But what about students?” I asked. “They access all their information through the various apps. How will they hear about your business or even what you serve?”
“Well, they’ll just have come and see for themselves like everyone else does. We believe here that it’s face-to-face encounters that develop a stronger citizenry, not trying to accomplish the same thing on the Internet. Democracy was established by personal encounters where debates were all part of the process but people got to speak directly to one another and hammer out their ideals. That will never change.”
The remainder of the article reflected the author’s incredulity that such an establishment could survive in the modern era. All those small start-up food eateries who struggle every day to pay the bills and which are run by younger managers would do well not to emulate the Third Place, he noted.
But the thrust of his negativity was aimed at Dad for his unwillingness to engage with the younger generation through the venues they preferred. The writer saw him as a kind of dinosaur who had somehow survived into the modern era. It was disconcerting to read.
This was often the nature of online commentary – negative, often crude, and willing to find fault where possible. It was especially difficult reading the closing paragraph, where the editor hinted that it might be best if younger patrons kept away from the Third Place and support smaller and younger establishments instead.
Dad’s reaction to the article was a mixture of mild confusion and a sense of determination. “We’ve had a successful operation here,” he noted. “Why would they take such a negative stand when about twenty percent of our clientele are students?” It was an important point, and true, but it validated what I had been learning from many of my student friends: success wasn’t the issue, but innovation and disruption were. And the Third Place, to them at least, was anything but these things.
Which was strikingly odd to me. My mind began to push back at the article’s logic, not just because the subject was about Mom and Dad’s efforts, but because how could Dad’s reasoning that the logic behind the operation was about concrete civic engagement be anything but innovative? In a way, it helped open my eyes to much of the shallowness endemic in my own generation. They were turning it into a battle between generations when, in reality, it was more about a few voices dumping on something they didn’t like. By experience, I knew that the vast majority of younger minds that I encountered regularly weren’t party to such an outlook but were just attempting to get on with their lives.
It wouldn’t be an overestimation to state that this was something of a revelation to me. And it also made clear that my own father was in fact a champion of innovation and novelty, despite his age and his prevalent belief that the methods of civic engagement in democracy’s past weren’t all bad but contained strong elements of credibility and success.
In my talks with him about the article’s negativity, Dad more or less shrugged it off. But he was hurt, I could tell. His belief that human interaction, face-to-face encounters, were the essence of civilization’s progress also applied to the young, was strongly held. He had meant no offense to any other generation, he told me, and he was sorry that they had taken to his efforts in such a fashion.
Except that wasn’t it, I knew. The writer of the piece, along with many of his peers, were just naturally offended at anything that preceded them and Dad was just the latest of a cast of characters that they took their umbrage out on. Soon enough they would move on to some other focus for their discontent, but for right now it was my father they were ganging up on and it hurt me as well.
It didn’t let up. Facebook and Twitter posts took their lead from the article, reiterating repeatedly that new ways must be found to support those smaller local operations that didn’t have the benefit of place or history like the Third Place possessed. Instead of appealing to consumer desire for standard food offerings, the time had come to experiment and collaborate with various food sources, exploit locally grown food, establish food incubators and cater more to the citizens of tomorrow.
This was the same approach my generation took towards politics, business, music and the arts, the environment and housing. It was a needed breath of fresh air in our tiring and aging community, but it possessed little nuance, opting to see anything more than twenty years old as archaic.
Yet through all that onslaught of negativity the Third Place continued to grow, especially with the addition of breakfast offerings. A great addition was the arrival of Mrs. Dawson’s grandson, Finn. He had dropped out of an American college in his sophomore year, choosing to wander and take on odd jobs, mostly in restaurants and cafes along the West Coast, with an added summer of working in Banff during the tourist season. However, it occurred, Finn had taken to food – how it appealed to others and how it was prepared.
Mrs. Dawson brought him in one day for dinner just prior to the social media onslaught and Finn grew fascinated with the ambiance and how Dad had focused on those meals from various places that people enjoyed the best.
Daisy and I went upstairs after closing while Finn and his grandmother remained at Mom’s request for a late evening drink. What came from those two hours together would have profound effects on all of us and the restaurant we loved and nourished.
Next chapter – Finn