Anyone who’s been to Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia has also likely visited The Sou’Wester Restaurant and Gift Shop near the famous lighthouse. Whether serving tourists, supporting local and other Canadian artisans through the extensive gift shop or serving the seaside community during a catastrophe like the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Peggy’s Cove in September of 1998—The Sou’Wester is a central figure in the history of Peggy’s Cove.
John Campbell is the owner and operator. He’s the son of The Sou’Wester’s founder, Jack Campbell. John reminisces fondly about the restaurant that he spent his childhood in and to which he has devoted his career. “My father and mother started it, bought it in ’67 and opened on Mother’s Day weekend in ’68,” he says. The first day they opened they had to close the doors around three o’clock in the afternoon because they ran out of food. What started as a very small operation, four or five tables and six bar stools expanded to 180 seats and a large gift shop added on about five years into their operations that today is a major part of their business. “Probably around the early ‘80s [it] became apparent, gifts became just as important,” says John.
At the start, his parents were torn on whether to buy it or not; they also looked at a motel elsewhere. John says his parents disagreed on the property to buy at the time, but that “obviously the right choice was made.” Peggy’s Cove was gaining popularity with locals and visitors. Natural traffic to the landmark made up The Sou’Wester’s business and word of mouth after that. Today it is bus tours and cruise passengers that fuel the business. The Campbell family has built solid partnerships with provincial tourism organizations, artists and government as part of their everyday marketing strategy.
John Campbell is a natural storyteller. He shares his thoughts on a few major elements of The Sou’Wester’s history and success.
His favourite cooking equipment and ingredients: Rational and that type of technology; it helps them to provide consistent quality. He is passionate about the quality of the seafood they serve—10,000 lobster suppers a year, not to mention their famous seafood chowder and their fish and chips. “It’s really important to me, I take pride in the food we serve, important to serve fresh fish,” says John.
About change: “For me, the change has been what the customer wants and now more than ever people want quality, they want fresh, people want to know that they’re eating healthy, that’s probably the biggest change in the last ten years. The more local you can do the better.” This presents some challenges, he admits, as fishing has taken downturns in the history of their operations.
About contributing to the community: The Sou’Wester employs over a hundred people, and the province and various organizations have recognized them over the years for their contributions. Especially in an around events that would change Peggy’s Cove forever. Events such as the crashing of passenger jet Swissair Flight 111 into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Peggy’s Cove in 1998. At the time, the Campbell family also operated a whale-watching boat, and John was out on the water about an hour after the crash. Peggy’s Cove was closed to the public for the following week, and during that time, The Sou’Wester became the search and rescue hub where emergency response personnel, press, law enforcement and families of victims congregated and were fed.
Being part of peoples’ lives, being part of events and contributing to the community, this is why John Campbell says operating The Sou’Wester is a rewarding business.
Another memory John shares is from September 11, 2011. The restaurant had passengers from a cruise ship visiting at the time of the first plane going into the tower—most of the clientele were New Yorkers “so they were finding out while they were in Peggy’s Cove. I distinctly remember, there was a woman there and her son worked in the towers. You can imagine she’s getting bits of pieces of this unthinkable thing happening,” says John. He then remembers that someone who worked for the local company that brought them out told him she had found out her son was okay.
Being part of the community in which he is located, this is one of the elements of his business that John values most, a value passed on to him by his parents.
Advice for other restaurateurs and hospitality operators: having experience and knowledge. “The restaurant business overall for most people is low margin; it’s just real important to keep your eye on things and realize … food costs and that are really important. The upside, to me, there’s a lot of pride associated with the restaurant because there’s nothing that feels better than having great compliments about meals and experiences people have there,” John finishes.
Lead Photo Credit: Stacey Newman