Mark Brand the guest speaker at NextUP event in New Westminster

Mark Brand owns several eateries in Gastown, and believes active landlords can play a huge role in a neighbourhood
Mark Brand owns several eateries in Gastown, and believes active landlords can play a huge role in a neighbourhood's resurgence.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Mark Brand runs restaurants. He also changes lives and transforms neighbourhoods.

Brand, 37, has worked around food since he was 12 years old, sweeping the floor in an East Vancouver pizza shop. In 2007 he opened his first restaurant, Boneta, named after his mother.

He located it in Gastown, the historic centre of Vancouver that had become a tourist trap collection of souvenir and snack shops where locals rarely ventured anymore. But beyond the "I heart Vancouver" T-shirts and stuffed moose plush toys, he recognized the area's potential, its unique spaces, its story.

"If we're to grow and understand ourselves, we need to understand where we came from and be proud of our history," says Brand, who will be giving the keynote speech at the inaugural NextUP Soiree on Nov. 10 to celebrate New Westminster's up-and-coming leaders. His appearance at the event is sponsored by The Salient Group.

Boneta begat The Diamond and Sea Monster Sushi, again located in Gastown. Last year he resurrected Save On Meats, the iconic Hastings Street butcher shop, adding a retro diner and take-out window beneath the famous neon smiling pig.

Brand's efforts, along with those of developer Robert Fung and other entrepreneurs, have been a catalyst to a new vibe in Gastown that is bringing locals back to the area to eat, to shop, to live.

"People are drawn to a real story, but that story has to prove itself," says Brand. "A lot of people trade off tags, but the consumer is way too educated."

Brand keeps it real by keeping it local. He lives in the area. He hires local residents. He sources local products. He gives back to the local community.

"We take a multi-faceted approach by integrating a good experience with a good impact on a neighbourhood that really needs it," says Brand. "I believe if we work in a community and be part of it, we have to give back."

Brand says he sees a lot of similarities between the emergence of Gastown as a vibrant destination for locals and New Westminster, including their history and abundance of interesting spaces.

"In Vancouver I fell in love with what it could be," says Brand. "New West is in this enviable position that it can do intelligent planning right now and learn from the mistakes of Vancouver. You can create an inclusive community, create diversity and make it a place that resounds with its residents, you can create something."

The pieces are falling into place, as local entrepreneurs are rediscovering the Downtown, Sapperton, the waterfront.

"You have to have boots on the ground," says Brand. "You have to engage your community directly because if you're an absentee owner, it won't blossom."

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