The sign for Sam's Monkey Tree Pub on an evening in October 2022. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The owners of Yellowknife’s Monkey Tree Pub say they’re being forced out of the adjoining restaurant and kitchen. The full detail of what will happen next is not clear.
The one apparent certainty is that the future of Stake Restaurant, opened by Monkey Tree co-owners Steve Dinham and Jennifer Vornbrock in 2018, is limited.
Vornbrock says she and Dinham have been told the restaurant and kitchen will be operated by someone else, potentially from January onward. The bar will remain theirs to run.
Characterizing a discussion with building landlord Jimmy Kong, Vornbrock said the Monkey Tree’s owners had been told earlier this year: “You have two options. Either you vacate the entire space, that’s option A, or option B is you continue to run the pub but I will take back the restaurant and the kitchen.”
“We took that away and we actually went to legal counsel, because we’ve invested a lot in this company,” said Vornbrock when reached on Tuesday. “But there’s really nothing we can do. He owns the building and he can do what he sees fit with it.”
Vornbrock says she and Dinham have no signed lease with Kong, which means they have no recourse.
“We’ve always just operated on the sense that this is kind-of a smile and a handshake,” she said.
“We pay our rent on time. We’ve paid our rent for the last 211 months. Steve did the calculation.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, but this is what’s happening … it’s a really sad moment.”
‘We haven’t finalized anything’
Vornbrock thinks the new restaurant operator will be Ed But, present owner and operator of Coyote’s Bistro on Franklin Avenue in downtown Yellowknife. She described a system where But’s kitchen would supply food to the Monkey Tree’s patrons.
“He’s taking on a lot. I hope that he understands the volume we do here and what is needed,” she said of the twin tasks of cooking for the Monkey Tree and the restaurant side of the same building. The prospect was first reported by NNSL in the Yellowknifer newspaper.
However, reached by phone on Wednesday, But expressed bewilderment and said all of this was far too premature.
But says he is in the process of setting up a boardgame café and collectible card shop farther down the same row of buildings on the Monkey Tree lot. He said he has not, though, signed any agreement to take over what is currently Stake Restaurant and its kitchen.
“I’m still working right now. My lease is up here in February,” he said while preparing for the evening service at Coyote’s Bistro. “We haven’t finalized anything yet. It’s all up in the air. Nothing’s been signed.”
But said his present landlord had only just dropped off lease renewal papers, which he had still to consider.
“I’m focusing on opening my boardgame cafe and my collectible card shop. Nothing else has been inked,” he said.
“I haven’t thought about anything else yet, because it’s probable that everything else would be a big undertaking and I want to focus on what I’m doing right now.”
Landlord has broader plan
Kong, the landlord of the Monkey Tree’s building, similarly said no deal with But had been agreed.
In an initial response to Cabin Radio by text, Kong said he had owned the building that houses the pub and restaurant for about 20 years.
“I now plan to redevelop Monkey Tree from a new plan,” Kong wrote. “I will invite interested and capable parties to participate in this reconstruction project.”
By phone on Wednesday evening, he confirmed no lease agreement existed with Vornbrock and Dinham. He suggested his relationship with the pub had not been the same since the departure of Harvey Bourgeois – the former Monkey Tree boss hailed by the pub itself as “the man, the myth and the legend” when he left the city in 2017. Between that and the number of demands on his time, Kong said, a lease was never drawn up.
“I always thought that I would maybe take over the whole place by myself, or I would invite some people that are interested,” he said, describing a broader vision of the building as an entertainment destination.
“We’re still negotiating,” he said of his conversations with But, adding that the restaurant being taken over by someone else entirely remained a possibility.
Asked how he responded to Vornbrock’s description of the closure of Stake being forced, Kong said he did not wish to discuss other people or businesses. He added, by text: “All I can say is if Harvey is still around, I will definitely not seek change.”
Vornbrock and Dinham just concluded a separate, protracted legal battle over an alleged breach of the Public Health Act during the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, a judge acquitted the Monkey Tree on the grounds that the prosecution failed to demonstrate anyone had ever told the pub it could not operate a dance floor during the height of pandemic restrictions. Vornbrock this week said the pub will donate the sum of the fine it would have faced if found guilty – just over $5,000 – to a local youth charity.
In the months ahead, Vornbrock said she hoped customers would come to enjoy food from the Stake kitchen under present ownership while they can.
“I think Yellowknife is going to lose one of the best restaurants in town,” she said of Stake.
“Obviously, there’s an emotional attachment. But at the end of the day … I guess we will commit to a new journey.”