With more than three decades of food service experience, Julia Tanaka has always worked with food. But with what she hopes is her final job, she's living out a dream after opening Jules Café at 5205 Rumble St. in South Burnaby.
The cozy eatery opened in May and within four months, it's already become a community hub for a wide variety of satisfied customers. Everybody from Burnaby South students to yuppie couples to seniors have embraced the café that serves healthy comfort food at affordable - downright cheap - prices.
"Everything we make here is from scratch," said Tanaka, who noted the turkey and chicken are roasted on site, the French fries are cut fresh each morning, and while she seriously contemplated not having a deep fryer - "I couldn't do it because the kids wanted fries, and it would be business suicide not to have a fryer," she said - she decided not to have a microwave in her open kitchen.
"I wanted people to see how we make everything," she said. "I've worked in a hospital and care home environment, so I know how important it is for people to see where their food is made."
Tanaka worked at Vancouver General Hospital for 24 years and then in care homes for another eight before deciding to go out on her own. She would've opened her café earlier, if not for a home renovation that took a bit longer than expected.
What sets Jules Café apart is that it's offering healthy alternatives at fastfood prices.
The Burnaby resident offers some of the best deals in the city, as her classic burger is only $4 and a deluxe double burger combo comes in at an unheard-of $8, which includes fries and a drink.
Tanaka hasn't been doing the job alone, as husband, Dale, a chiropractor, chips in with manual labour, and Tanaka's sister Abby and brother-in-law Martin Kobayakawa also help in the serving department.
In fact, on the weekend, when there's fewer students and it's an all-day breakfast and brunch crowd, Martin gets out the guitar and provides entertainment for the guests.
"I'm so lucky to have so many friends and family who have volunteered to help me out," said Tanaka. "I'm so grateful. So many of them knew this was my dream, and I really hope this is my final job."
On a recent weekday, we sat down with Tanaka and chef Kaz Takashima to see what makes Jules Café one of the most popular dining spots in South Burnaby.
We started with the classic cheeseburger, served with bacon, and the clubhouse sandwich, a veritable steal at $5.50.
Because the ground beef is fresh and the patties are hand-pressed, there's a lightness to our burger that won't find at a fast-food restaurant.
"When we have kids come in for lunch, I tell them it's going to be eight minutes for the burger to be done," she said. "They'll ask why, and I say 'That's how long it takes to cook meat. You don't want to eat uncooked or undercooked meat.'"
As for the clubhouse, roasting your own turkey means there's a light and juicy taste to the meal.
Both dishes come with fries and you should heed Tanaka's advice: Eat the fries before they get cold.
"If you don't eat them within five minutes, they just don't taste the same," she said. "That's the thing with hand-cooking and blanching them. A lot of people aren't used to the natural taste."
Two people can eat heartily for less than $15 total and if you go there during any lunch hour, you'll see that the five employees there work like a well-oiled machine.
"The kids have about 30 minutes to eat, and we're working full-out when they start coming," she said. "I remember one of our first days, there's five of us working and there's about 50 kids and we didn't think we could do it, but everybody got served and we got them all back to class."
Tanaka has been pleasantly surprised to see many of the kids eating healthier with each visit.
"A lot of them will order chicken burgers and instead of fries, they'll switch in a soup or salad every now and then," she said.
It's not just kids who love Jules Café, as one of her neighbours, Burnaby-Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan, was one of the first people to talk up the place.
"I love the turkey panini," said Chouhan. "And when we need to bring in stuff for a meeting at the office, she's one of the people we call. She's so close, and she gets us great, healthy food."
Tanaka has also let her chef experiment and offer up a daily special that can run the gamut from meatloaf to Philly cheesesteak to a chicken Caesar.
In the future, she's hoping to offer a Japanese bento box alternative - an homage to her Japanese heritage.
As for what Tanaka eats herself, you'd be surprised at what her favourite dishes are.
"I'm a simple eater," she said. "I'll just have toast with peanut butter. . I do love the cookies and the desserts, so you'll see me eating that more often than not."
The eatery is open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch - 7: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3: 30 p.m. on weekends - and that allows Tanaka to have a worklife balance.
"I golf with my friends and I play hockey when I can," she said. "I am getting closer to retirement, you know."
You can bet many of Tanaka's customers hope that isn't the case and she'll be serving people at Jules Café for many years to come.
Jules Café is located at 5205 Rumble St. For more info, call 604-430-0340 or email email@example.com.