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Nov. 25, 2020 | Wednesday
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Silks marks 25 years serving up community
Sibling owners of Silks Joel Dempsey and Jen Phelan. (Brittany Carter)

COVID means no big celebration, but popular family-run Virgil restaurant weathers pandemic storm

 

Everyone may not know your name, but when you walk into Silks Country Kitchen you need only introduce yourself to be welcomed as family.

The popular restaurant on the corner of Four Mile Creek and Niagara Stone roads marked its 25-year anniversary in May, and sibling owners Joel Dempsey and Jen Phelan say there’s no plan to slow down.

“It was a family thing. My mom was the driving force behind purchasing the place and getting things opened up and what-not. And then she passed away just about 11 years ago, so we've continued on with it and kept it going, as we should,” Dempsey says.

Virginia Dempsey, the matriarch of the family, bought the restaurant in 1995 and it has since grown into a go-to spot and one of NOTL's most popular watering holes.

It's famous for its generous, low-priced all-day breakfast, but there's much more to it, the family says.

The eatery is frequented from morning until night. Some see Silks as a breakfast spot and it initially garnered popularity with the introduction of a 99-cent breakfast, but many others think of Silks only for dinner and late-night drinks.

“And the others don’t know the other ones exist,” Phelan says.

Though there are some that turn to Silks anytime the mood strikes.

“We have people that are here for breakfast and then they come back after the hockey game,” she says.

“They keep coming back for more,” says Dempsey.

Phelan says she would have liked to hold a celebration thanking the customers and staff for their support over the years, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to any 25-year party plans. However, Dempsey says there will likely be something big planned for the 30-year anniversary.

“For our 20-year we had an open house to welcome customers and staff in to celebrate. We would likely do something like that for 30,” she says.

“We had a prize table, door prizes and free food and beverages and just come in and mingle and say hello. We had customers that had been coming forever and people who had worked here, and then had left for 10 to 15 years and then come back, and say “Oh my God, I can't believe it's been 20 years,' " Phelan says.

She says the restaurant has become more than just a place to eat over the years. Watching the families and the neighbourhood grow, it has become an integral part of the community.

Silks regular Elizabeth Ruttan says servers often know her order before she even makes it to the table.

"Many are welcomed by name and the friendly servers know what we want before we sit down," she says.

Tammi Hawey, who has been serving at Silks for almost 10 years, says she couldn't imagine working anywhere else. The family vibe keeps her rooted and invested int he restaurant.

"From day one they welcomed me with open arms and almost everyone I work with I have worked with for the entire 10 years I've been there. Once they welcome you in it's almost impossible to leave! Our bosses are so amazing (Jen and Joel) they respect us and allow us to become great servers with positive feedback aswell as feeling like family," she says.

That family vibe doesn't end with staff, she adds.

"The customers easily become friends. There's about 20 people that I regularly get a drink with or have a nice time at their house. When I say it's a family, it's really an extended family with everyone," Hawey says.

As the town has welcomed and supported the restaurant, Phelan says it has been interesting to watch the surrounding village develop into a bustling hub over the years.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that we've just been here for so long that we've just seen kids that have been coming in a carrier as a baby, and then next thing you know they're getting married. You've kind of watched a lot of families grow up,” she says.

“You feel like you've just really watched the community grow. I've always liked that.”

As the restaurant has continued serving the community over these last 25 years, Phelan says it’s also been nice to see the neighbourhood sprout up around them.

“I've always said, do you really want to be the only place in town … I think a thriving community is so much better,” she says.

The restaurant has faced some challenges over the years. The biggest and most heart-wrenching was the loss of her mother Virginia 11 years ago, and sister Anne three years ago, Dempsey says.

“I would say that was probably the biggest thing that's happened to us here in the 25 years is losing my mom and my sister. She (Anne) was a part of this place for a long time as well. So, losing two family members is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome,” Dempsey says.

COVID-19 has also been a huge strain on the business. Pre-pandemic the establishment could fit about 75 people in the dining room, with another 15 at the bar. But with six-foot spacing requirements, Dempsey says it’s down to about 45 in the dining room and seven at the bar.

But with the support of the community, he says he believes Silks will continue to be OK.

The restaurant continued offering takeout during the initial shutdown and is maintaining semi-regular business throughout the restrictions.

“Everybody's trying to be helpful and support all of the local businesses,” Dempsey says.

Dempsey says he sees no reason why Silks won’t continue offering a safe and welcoming space for the next 25 years to come.

With drop-ins by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, random celebrities, famous athletes and news personalities, you never know when you might end up rubbing elbows with big names during your casual meal at your favourite local restaurant. 

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