Episode 4

Life is Short (Open a Restaurant) | Conversation with Jane Wright

A roundtable chat with Jane Wright, founder of Jane's on the Common restaurant and Jane's Catering and Events, along with your host Vincent and Breakhouse partner Peter Wuensch.

In this conversation: the magic of a successful restaurant, the oversized importance of space and experience design in hospitality, and the go-and-get-it attitude and work ethic of the woman who made it happen.

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Host: Vincent Van den Brink, Architect + Partner, Breakhouse, Inc.
Guests: Jane Wright (Jane’s On the Common & Jane’s Catering and Events), Peter Wuensch (Breakhouse founding partner)
Announcer: Danielle Pottier, Senior Architect, Breakhouse, Inc.
Producer: Brenden Sommerhalder, Director of Analytics + Integration, Breakhouse, Inc.
Production Assistant: Jamie White, Manager of Social + Front of House, Breakhouse, Inc.
Theme music: Ghettosocks

Episode Transcript

“That next level, like En Route and being written up in the New York Times; those things never would have happened if the design hadn’t been on par.” Jane Wright



Welcome to Design Makes Everything Better, a podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding. Today, on Episode #4, Vince interviews Jane Wright, founder of Jane’s on the Common and Jane’s Catering and Events, researcher, and beloved local personality. Now, here’s your host, Vince.


Vince: Hello, podcast listeners. Thank you for checking in. I am Vince Van den Brink. We have a great conversation with Jane Wright, owner of a restaurant that used to be in our little town, Halifax, called Jane’s on the Common. While Breakhouse was in its infancy at that time, it’s a place that we actually talk about a fair bit, and I’m asked about on occasion, still, and this is many years after it has since closed.

If you are listening to this podcast and you do not know the restaurant or if you’ve never heard of Jane’s, it’s not really necessary. If you are a designer with the aspirations of working with a restaurant owner to create an environment, you will find a lot in here that I think you will find helpful. Or if you are a restaurant owner and you’re trying to find a designer to partner with, I hope you’ll find something valuable in this, as well. I think you will.

Another quick note. You’ll hear a voice that is not necessarily familiar to the podcast, and that is Peter Wünsch. He’s my business partner. The audio quality is not as great as we would like, but don’t worry, your ear will get used to it. Enjoy the podcast.

* * * Music * * *


Vince: So, Jane’s on the Common. I’ve been so surprised, I have to admit, as much as I loved and as dear as it was to me and to the office, how often I still have conversations with people that bring up Jane’s, and maybe they’re asking me, “Why did it ever go. I’m so sorry to see that we don’t have it anymore,” and how important it was to the culture of dining in Halifax.

We had a podcast conversation just a few weeks ago with somebody that said how critical and valuable it was to the city. Outside of that, it had national attention, and you had foodies from all over the States flying in to eat at Jane’s. What was it, do you think, if there are a few things maybe, or if there was one maybe, what was it that made it so important to people and what was it that people connected with?

Jane Wright: I feel like you’re going to make me cry.

Vince: No, that’s okay. You’re allowed to cry here.


Jane Wright: Oh, boy. We got a lot of things right.

Vince: Yeah.

Jane Wright: I could say right from the start, but we didn’t have a sign for three months. So, in a sense, it wasn’t all built the day it opened. I mean, it was close, but we got a lot of things right. The food was good. It was hot. It was fresh. It was in the neighbourhood. It felt great being in there. If you ask me one thing that made it over the top, it would have been the lighting.

Vince: The lighting.

Jane Wright: The lighting. That restaurant just shined. Like it glowed at night. You looked fantastic when you were in there. I don’t know. The lighting was really – who knew. And the most expensive light in there was a $24.99 one.

Vince: Back when that opened in 2003?

Jane Wright: 2003.

Vince: That is still a cheap light. No matter how you look at it, that’s a cheap light.

Jane Wright: No, no. That was a very cheap light.

Vince: And there would have been, as my memory serves me well enough, that there were a lot of other restaurants at that time that were nice to be in that had a well-designed environment. Was it that the food was just different enough that people couldn’t find anything like that in the city, or was it that the design was just that bit better, or what? Over the years, I’ve been in there and enjoyed spending time. Is it purely, do you think, just because it was just so comfortable, and you looked good, and it was inviting?

Jane Wright: Well, it was the service. They always say for a successful restaurant the food’s got to be good; the hospitality’s got to be good, and the space has to be inviting. So you need all three elements. We hit that with Jane’s. In the beginning, I thought I didn’t need any help. I was just going to get some paint and paint up the old diner.

In hindsight, I might have been a busy little neighbourhood diner if I had done that, but that next level, like winning En Route and being written up in the New York Times; those things never would have happened if the design hadn’t been on par. We were dishing up good food. It wasn’t the best food at all. No way would I say that. Jane’s on the Common served up haddock and mashed potatoes.

Vince: It was comfort food.

Jane Wright: You’d have a really hard time finding haddock now. Our concept was common food, so we served haddock. At a fancier restaurant, you would never find haddock on one of the popular restaurants these days.

Vince: Go back to that point when you said you were just going to paint it yourself.

Jane Wright: It was Fred. It was my hairdresser, Fred.


Vince: Fred, the hairdresser.

Jane Wright: Fred, the hairdresser. He believed in the location when no one else did. I almost abandoned the idea of going after that space to open a restaurant because everyone was so negative about it. But he believed in the space, and so I went, “Oh, wow!” I moved ahead with the plan just on the basis of his casual remark, saying he thought it was a great location. Then he told me that Peter had just stepped out into the design world doing commercial design work, and he really thought it would be a good idea to get in touch with him. Whoa! Am I ever glad I did that!

Vince: Okay. So you decide on a recommendation from Fred, who is successful in his own right with the salons and the work that he has done and the spaces that he’s created. That came with a degree of credibility, so I can imagine you wanted to take his advice. Was it an open question? I’m wondering how someone like yourself makes a decision as to who to work with as a partner.

You’re saying now that it was a great decision because it worked out really well. When you start off, you don’t know if this is going to work well, so how do you, as a restaurant owner, or in your position, can you think of a reason or maybe there was something that made you feel comfortable in moving into that partnership? Did you ask others as well?

Jane Wright: No. I don’t know what I would have done, actually. I think I would have just carried on and tried to paint it myself. It was one of those magical things that happened. I had done a lot of work with graphic designers in my past job, so I was somebody who did believe if you hired somebody to do some design work that you try to give them as much – the more freedom you give them or, the less restrictions, the better the product.

So, I believed in that. I knew that inside me that if I was going to work with these guys, I wasn’t going to micromanage their stuff, their work. They also offered me the deal of a lifetime. I didn’t really understand that at the time.

Peter: Neither did we.

Vince: Peter, I think it would be interesting to hear from your point of view when you first got the call from Jane. What was that like? What did it mean to you when she called up and asked for some help? Did it feel like, potentially, the opportunity that it turned into?


Peter: Well, no. That was the first big restaurant gig, so it wasn’t very exciting before that. It had been retail store-type stuff, but it was really fun, I think, of creating a full restaurant environment for someone else with their money. I wasn’t sure how much it was going to be. [Laughter] It was one credit card full, anyway.

Jane Wright: Nobody has ever opened a restaurant for as little as what I opened a restaurant for.

Peter: That is possible.

Jane Wright: I think. I don’t know.

Vince: You said that you really trusted the process. Did you come with any ideas? Did you have a vision for it?

Jane Wright: I did have a vision in the beginning. I did bring a book. I have a very short passage that left a huge impression on me, and I guess it was formulating while I was thinking about my restaurant. It’s called Restaurants that Work: Case Studies of the Best in the Industry, by Martin E. Dorf.

Vince: What we’ll do, we’ll show some photographs of this in the podcast notes so that people can see what you’re talking about.

Jane Wright: Okay. In the first ten pages, there’s this beautiful, historical perspective about restaurants and their development in the world. I get to this place about Bistros, and it says, “Bistros evolved mostly out of necessity rather than design to serve workers near or [inlay how 10:22] in the decades of the 19th Century. With their honest homemade cooking and fair prices, they became havens for struggling artists and journalists throughout Paris whose garrets didn’t have kitchens. Customers both dined and virtually lived in their favourite bistros where grandmotherly women or [maïs 10:45] nurtured their souls with cuisson du maïs. The allure of these bistros is and always has been their deeply satisfying down-to-earth cooking served in a warm, homey, softly lighted environment.”

Vince: That sounds beautiful.

Jane Wright: So that’s what I had in me. When I met with them, I told them that I really like the colour red. I wanted an informal chalkboard-style menu, and I wanted the design to be classic, like a sleeveless black dress.

Vince: Nice.

Jane Wright: And they delivered.

Peter: It’s true. It was those three things.

Jane Wright: Jane’s on the Common. That was it.

Vince: It’s interesting that it started from an emotive place. That piece that you just read, it’s interesting to me that that’s where you imagined the space to be.

Jane Wright: I could feel it. I could feel that the price would mean that someone could come more than once a week, that the price would be at that point. They were about to dig the hole to build the condo, those apartments across the street, and I thought. Well, there’s the modern-day equivalent.


Vince: So, Peter, when that was described to you, where did you go from there? Did you go straight to Home Depot and pick out that thing that looked closest to a dress or what? Tell me about it.

Peter: I have to say, that’s one of the best creative briefs we’ve ever had from a client. a) Clients that trust designers to do the work; how you just put it. You hire someone, and you don’t want to micromanage them because you’re not going to get the best out of them. Then, a vision that had those kinds of strong points, but, again, nice high-level.

We would interpret what a sleeveless black dress means and your words, which were carefully chosen and condensed into nice, clean thought? You let us go with that, and I think we came back to say, “All right. We’ll set the table with how this concept could work.” And as I recall, we set the table with a bottle of wine at our first meeting.

Jane Wright: In your garage.

Peter: In my garage studio. Yeah.

Vince: The first presentation was set up as a dinner in the restaurant.

Peter: We literally set up a dinner plate.

Vince: Was it the kinds of plates that you would be using? Was it like a tableware presentation?

Peter: It wasn’t metaphorical because it was actual, but they were symbolic. So it wasn’t like, “Here’s the dinner plate; here’s the linen.” It was “Here’s a feel that we’re interpreting the beginnings of”—

Vince: It was just a feeling.

Jane Wright: It was just the table set on the white linen, and then you had those conceptual boards of colour.

Vince: That is such a great way to present a restaurant idea as a first presentation. I think about that today. [Pouring wine] That sounds delicious. [Laughter]

Peter: I think the sound is very important. It’s always important. [Pouring wine] Yeah, that’s a good sound.

Vince: Okay. Maybe I can reframe it. I wonder how that would be received by clients today if we sat around a table.

Jane Wright: Sometimes, I think it was easier because I had less preconceived—

Vince: Ideas of what it could be.

Jane Wright: Ideas about what it could be. They were ahead of me. When I think now back to when Jenna was working on Edna—

Vince: Your daughter Jenna.

Jane Wright: My daughter Jenna, sorry, was developing Edna. It was a harder process because she had come to it with a much further-down-the creative journey, I guess than I did. These guys got me just like – that’s all I had.

Vince: It’s so true like that.

Jane Wright: So, I didn’t get too far down. I’m sure you have to spend a lot of your time trying to talk clients out of doing stuff that they want to do.


Vince: Yeah.

Jane Wright: I’m sure it’s huge.

Peter: It is.

Vince: You do because you can see they have a preconceived notion of what an experience could be or should look like, and the way that they describe it most often, unfortunately, not as beautifully in a way that you had it, but there’s often a disconnect. So you have to try to steer them away from that so that you can say what you’re talking about doesn’t line up with what you’re sharing, with what you’re showing. You won’t have that experience that you’re hoping for.

Sometimes, that’s not the case. Right? And sometimes, we meet with clients that are exceptionally well in-tune with what an experience is. They have a very clear vision, and we work with them to help make that vision a reality sometimes. It’s more rare, I would say, for us to have someone, like yourself, to come in with – I think your origin story is super interesting, with no restaurant experience, as well as necessarily the design experience. This was the first restaurant that you ever opened.

Jane Wright: Oh, first business. First restaurant. Absolutely.

Vince: First business and everything. Before this, you were a political staffer. How do you move from that space into deciding that you want to open up a restaurant?

Jane Wright: I’m a librarian by training.

Vince: A librarian by training.

Jane Wright: I got out every book in the library on how to open a restaurant. Then I opened a Word document. What, to me, is one of the most remarkable things about the Jane’s story is how fast it happened. I worked in an office for 20 years, but I didn’t go to the office every day and dream about opening a restaurant. The idea came into my head on March 1st. And on September 1st, we opened. So, six months.

Vince: That is crazy fast, especially coming from what you were doing before March 1st.

Jane Wright: I know. I spent more time negotiating a year’s leave of absence from my good job at the Union than I did negotiating my lease. I just assumed, like everyone else, that I was just going to fall – that it wasn’t going to work. I was about two months into the restaurant when I read the statistic that 50% of new restaurants fail in the first three years. I was ready for a risk in my life.

Vince: I’m still trying to picture you on March 1st or what would have happened that made you want to do this. Where does this come from? I’m trying to understand.

Jane Wright: There were a couple of things going on. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer just right around that time. She brought me up to believe that getting a pension was the most important thing in life. So, it was just like, “Oh, my gosh. Life is short.” She worked her whole life to get a pension and then die.


I had this wind in my sails to “Boy! If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it now because life is short. I was also in discussions to go and take a job in Ottawa at the time. So I was thinking about packing up and starting up in another big job in Ottawa. I just had this epiphany. I was standing on the street outside that old Common’s Grill, and I went, “I’m not going to go to Ottawa and work that hard. I’m going to open a restaurant.”

Vince: And that will be easy. [Laughter]

Jane Wright: Yes. No, but I did work in a restaurant when I was in university as a waitress, and it was fun, and that’s what I remembered about it, that it was joyful. I wanted my day to involve joy. I couldn’t think of a better way than to serve food to people in a nice welcoming environment.

Vince: Cheers. I haven’t had a sip yet. Here. I’m watching you drink away. The emotive reason to open up a restaurant, I think, carried through on how it operated, how it looked, what the food was. I think that’s one of the reasons people were so drawn to it because you really felt the story that you shared like it was a place of comfort.

But it becomes this beautiful backdrop. I remember telling you something like this before of people’s lives, and Jane’s, in particular. Restaurants can do that in general, but the really great ones become a backdrop to their lives. I can’t tell you how many significant conversations my wife, now Lucy, and I would have in Jane’s.

Jane Wright: Oh, I could see you. I know exactly where you were sitting. I could see you were at Table 10.

Vince: I would have never known that we would be in a room like this having a conversation reflecting back on it, but if we needed to sort something out, we wouldn’t do it in our living room. If we needed to talk through something, we would go to a place that was comfortable, and we would be right next to strangers, which was also very, very uncommon at the time to do. And we would have really personal conversations. In that space, that food, that service, you felt like you could do that there.

Jane Wright: There were people to the bitter end. I got one of the worst complaint letters I ever got three months before I closed, and it was all about the noise in there. But I feel because it was so loud and kind of bustling, that you actually focused on the person that you were with, with an intensity that you don’t normally do. The person next to you couldn’t hear what you were saying, so it was actually like a really private place to have a conversation.


Vince: Yeah. It’s funny. After all of that, I would never have thought of it that way. I thought that everybody that was sitting around us was hearing every bit of our conversation. But at the same time, I oddly can’t remember what the people beside us were saying. So, you’re right.

Jane Wright: Garner those days. The tables at Jane’s were 18” apart, and you could sit and talk to them – it was conducive to talking to strangers. The magic that I saw at that bench with strangers talking to strangers was so moving.

Vince: So for those who don’t know it, there was a long bench that had its back to the window that overlooked Robbie Street, which was and still is one of the main arteries in and out of Halifax. It was a really busy street with a huge window right next to it. There’s an image of an artist – I can’t remember the artist’s name. Peter, you might remember, which was an image that I’ve always seen as a—

Jane Wright: It’s Edward Hopper.

Vince: Edward Hopper. Thank you very much.

Jane Wright: Nighthawks at the diner.

Vince: That beautiful image looking into the diner, Nighthawks. It did have that sort of a feel to it. Right?

Jane Wright: Well, sort of floor to ceiling, plate glass, single plate glass. It was a lot of window.

Vince: Yeah. To come back to the noise piece, I’m assuming, and this might not be right, but even with the background in film that you had, Peter, before working with Jane’s, sound was probably not considered as a product in this space that you would have to contend with or was it just a happy outcome because sometimes, there were complaints.

Peter: Oh, it was like we didn’t have any money to do anything else to deaden the sound. Hard tile floors, hard ceiling.

Jane Wright: Massive wall of glass.

Peter: We were aware, but the bustle in this worked.

Jane Wright: Sometimes, there would be a couple in there in their ‘80s to come out to dinner on a crappy night, and they just would say, “We like coming here because it makes us feel alive.” It had a lot of energy from that noise. Lots of people wouldn’t go there because of the noise. Lots of people wouldn’t go there because I was a known new Democrat.


Peter: What are you going to do?

Jane Wright: I don’t know.

Vince: Looking back at it, or on it, I should say, would you say there’s maybe something you would have done differently that would have made it work a little bit better.

Jane Wright: I wouldn’t have done it in a building that I didn’t own.

Vince: Right. Yeah.

Jane Wright: Because what I learned, really, in my 18 years of business is if you don’t own the building that you’re in, you don’t have anything in the end. So, that’s hard. In restaurants, you’re putting in significant leaseholds into a space. That’s tough business. In hindsight, in some ways, I think ten years was a really nice run for Jane’s. It opened. It had a beginning, middle, and an end.


Jane Wright (cont.): When I announced I was closing, the last three months were the busiest three months I ever had in business. I always say the best thing I ever did in business was announce I was closing my business. [Laughter]

Vince: I hear that’s why musicians do farewell tours over and over and over again. Right?

Jane Wright: Yeah, I don’t know.

Peter: You made good selections, I would say, in your book choice as a librarian because I remember you read every, it seemed like, every restaurant book out there. Some of them were very numbers-based, but clearly, none of them were that negative side of – I was trying to think. Anthony Bourdain wrote in one of his books about that kind of hubris side of the restaurant world where “There’s no doubt, we have a busy, successful restaurant.” You feel like the queen of the world. It’s a cool feeling to have, a busy hot spot. And that’s the kind of cocaine that sucks a lot of people in.

Jane Wright: Yes.

Peter: Their money goes down an endless pit. Clearly, you didn’t read that chapter of any of those books, which was good.

Jane Wright: You know what happened to me in the very first month? In the very first month, I only had 11 tables, and that restaurant was so small. People, just as they were finishing their lunches, I spent about 45 seconds at their table. I said, “Oh, I hope you enjoyed your lunch.” She told me in a very few minutes that her name was Jane – that her brother was bringing her there for her birthday. Her brother was bringing her to this restaurant, Jane’s, for lunch. And that’s all I said.

When I got home from work late that night, there was an email from that woman that basically said she had never felt so welcome anywhere she had ever been in her life. Right then and there, that was my purpose. It was so easy to be kind and to make a difference in someone’s life. It was so easy to do it. It didn’t cost you anything in business. From that day on, when there was a car out front, and some lady was getting out with a walker, I had my staff trained. They were out on the curb helping that woman with the walker. Those little things – that, to me, drove me every day.

I think the economics of restaurants are very messed up. I tried to keep the prices at Jane’s low, but as a model, it doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable.

Vince: Yeah.

Peter: I remember your daughter saying the same thing. The busiest months of the restaurant might have been the worst of the year sometimes.


Jane Wright: We don’t pay enough that the public is so sensitive to the price of restaurant food. When people are complaining that your food is too expensive, you feel bad; you want to keep the prices down, but it’s not right. There’s a fundamental problem with it. Jen Agg, that Toronto restaurateur, had a great article in the Globe last month about what’s happening to restaurants in the pandemic. She owns three or four places in Toronto. She said until the dining public is prepared to pay significantly more, there isn’t much future for restaurants. It’s really on the extreme. Who can pay $500 for dinner for two?

Vince: Yeah. The sad thing is it’s so far from the story that you read earlier.

Jane Wright: It is.

Peter: Yeah. Those two stories there; that story of the daily dining because it’s kind of like a self-fulfilling bad prophecy because you do want to offer that daily experience, and that has to be affordable, especially the global economy where you can buy things for so cheap.

Jane Wright: Yes.

Peter: It’s hard to justify preparing the meal out to whatever else it could be: a coat or whatever.

Jane Wright: People have to say, “Oh, I could make that at home for that.” They don’t look at the coat and see that.

Peter: No, they don’t.

Jane Wright: But the food, they do.

Vince: I do think that people understand outside of that story the majority of people understand that going to a restaurant is an experience that they’re buying into. They could eat at home. They don’t have enough food in the house; they can go get some groceries and come; sit down and eat. I don’t think this is a convenience story with most restaurants, the good ones especially.

They’re not going to Jane’s because it was a convenient thing to do. Maybe a little bit, but I think a bigger part of it was that they wanted to be in the atmosphere. They wanted to share a meal. Then, I think the question is in the experience-based economics for a restaurant: it’s not about how much food costs or what the service costs the restaurant owner, but what is that experience worth?

If you sit down in a seat to watch a Maple Leaf’s hockey game. It’s an expensive seat, and you’re just watching really good people play hockey. Where you sit in that stadium is a different price point. If you’re sitting right up at the front, you are willing to pay $300 more, or even more than that, than you would be if you were 20 rows back.

You’re watching the same game. You’re getting the same information, but the experience is fundamentally different. People can accept that. People can really accept that “I’m going to pay this really high level of money.” And I can watch it at home.


Vince (cont.): I can read about it the next day. I can watch the highlights, but they’re buying that experience. I think if restaurants can get to a place where they can communicate with the customer base that they’re buying into that, they’re not just buying a plate of nachos.

Jane Wright: I don’t know. That’s a lot of pressure to deliver.

Peter: When you’re going toward experience, I was going to say that you had it at Jane’s. You weren’t trying to sell an experience because you were this bumping spot with energy. That was the experience we were happy to pay for. Vince was happy to go there and talk to his wife in that buzzy room.

Vince: Fight with her, actually.

Vince: Fight with her in the buzzy room because that experience went better than having it at home.

Vince: Yeah.

Jane Wright: Interesting.

Peter: You definitely had it. You were selling an experience, or you had the magic that every restaurant wants to have.

Vince: I remember thinking many a time that it was surprisingly affordable for what we got out of it. I remember it wasn’t a hard decision as to where to go. I do hope that restaurant owners in the future just look at the economics structure slightly differently. If they do look at it differently, they may be able to recognize that there’s possibly a smaller group of people that would be going there regularly just because it’s difficult to afford. It gives it the model that you’re talking about, which is making it sustainable.

Jane Wright: Where I was going was, I think they need to put the prices up collectively if everyone did it. But if new places are opening and putting things back to $13, then somebody – they can’t charge $18 for a gourmet burger when places are opening today, and they’re back at the $13 level. Yeah. The economics is very, very tough.

Vince: As a business, then, in the world of hospitality, given everything that makes it challenging, how important is design in that business decision?

Jane Wright: To me, it’s a full third – a third of the equation. You need the food. You need the front of the house, and you need the setting. Sometimes, I find restaurants have moved quite a bit to the super-star chef model, so they’re in the back, and they don’t necessarily have anyone out front who is as strong as they are.

I think having a strong front person is really, really important. I think sometimes if people just think if the food is good that nothing else matters. Then, that it’s clean and it’s inviting, and it feels good. I wrote quite a piece for the Restaurant Association a few years ago.


Jane Wright (cont.): It’s on their website called, How to Open and Run a Successful Restaurant in Nova Scotia. It’s a 200-page manuscript, and I put my heart and soul into it.  If you ever wanted to see my restaurant philosophy and how to go about doing it, it’s basically a step-by-step guide on how to do this.

Vince: I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you, and I haven’t read it.

Jane Wright: So, you’ll see there is a whole section on design in that, as well.

Peter: It starts with the paragraph, “Find young cheap designers.”

Vince: What advice, then, would you give to designers in this context that are interested in working with people like yourself in the world of restaurants? What advice would you give them?

Jane Wright: I don’t know. It would be hard to think that someone like myself could – if those stars hadn’t aligned for me that I would have – I don’t know that I would have had that opportunity to do it. Now, I would see it as just an integral part of it, like absolutely, totally important, essentially good design pace. In every way, it does.

Vince: So then, that’s more of advice that restaurant owners should understand that from your point of view that if you don’t have a space that is really well connected to the experience that you want that the design is going to cut out one-third of the magic if it’s not done well from what it could be.

Jane Wright: I think so, at least. In my case, I would have said it – I don’t know. I don’t know what would have happened to Jane’s on the Halifax restaurant scene if I hadn’t taken that sow’s ear and turned it into a silk purse, even though it was like some of it was fake silk. But they gave me options.


Those two sexy slate tile walls that were in Jane’s could have either been painted drywall with chalkboard paint, or they could have been that black slate tile. And so, it was one area where I actually went with the slate. It was so beautiful. But most other things, I had to make choices all along the way. I opened with the crazy awful cutlery that was in there when I took over the diner. I was open about two days, and two different sets of customers came up to me and offered to buy new cutlery.


Jane Wright: One was Fred, and the other one was a dentist just around the corner.

Vince: Did you take them up on the offer?

Jane Wright: No, I wouldn’t. I think it was $300, but it was like $300 that I did not have.

Vince: You just didn’t have it at the time.

Jane Wright: I didn’t have it. You know those famous wine rack tiles that were in Jane’s? I just remember that they put those in, and I don’t know if there were eight or ten bottles per tile, and there were four or five of them. It was like 48. I’m going, “I can’t buy 48 bottles of wine. Are you crazy?” You know, I was buying 48 bottles of wine every two days.

Vince: It was too much.

Jane Wright: But at the time, it was too much for my brain. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I honestly didn’t have a clue.

Vince: On the [back of the house 36:30] side then, you ended up, would you say lucky there as well? You didn’t know what you were getting into.

Jane Wright: Yeah. I knew what I wanted. I didn’t go into this completely inexperienced. I’m a really good cook, and I love having dinner parties. But I advertised, and I interviewed chefs, and I had them make soup, like an audition, and bring in soup. Then my contractors and the electricians and plumbers – we all sampled the stuff.

Vince: And you would decide?

Jane Wright: We voted on it.

Vince: Oh, no way. That is great.

Jane Wright: About five days before the restaurant opened, I’ll never forget. I hired two chefs because I couldn’t decide between Henry and Robert. We hung the plastic up, and the carpenters moved into the dining room, the facades, to finish the dining room. The chefs were in the back. We knew we wanted a burger on the menu.

They did a burger with just salt and pepper, and then they did a burger with all this other stuff, tarting it up. Then we made them for lunch, and the carpenters decided which burger we were going with. It was very collaborative.

Vince: That’s great.

Peter: [Crosstalk 37:43] I saw your bookmark with the Venus. Would you remind me who your Venus is?


Jane Wright: We were sitting at a booth in the restaurant, and you said – we were close. We had the design worked out. Nothing for the sign, and you said, “Jane, you need a muse.” I had this book on my bedside table, but this painting is Lucas Cranach, the Dutch painter, 1459. It’s owned by the National Gallery in Ottawa. I wrote and got Copyright permission to use her on my – I did a bookmark because I had been a librarian on the calling card, which was fascinating. Do you know the people I see? My sister still sees people on a plane with one of these in their [inaudible 38:34].

Vince: Are you serious?

Jane Wright: Because people don’t save business cards, but they save bookmarks. So I wrote to the Library, and I got Copyright permission to use that. You know, at first, I wasn’t going to do that. I just said, “Oh, I’m just going to do it. Nobody’s ever going to see this little restaurant. Are you kidding me?” With the amount of attention that the restaurant got, can you imagine if I hadn’t gotten permission to use that?

Vince: Oh, yeah.

Jane Wright: The moral of the story is to plan for success. Everything I did was planning that I wasn’t going to make it, in a way.

Vince: Tell me the order of events. You didn’t have in the budget to have a sign, but that was made when you opened?

Jane Wright: No, this hadn’t been made yet. To get that piece of foam core – I remember it was printed at Image House on McCully Street. They just took a few months to get that after I opened. I put up one of those poster signs that I had in the window when I was renovating. Remember?

Peter: Oh, yeah.

Jane Wright: I put up those really neat photographs. They sparked a lot of buzz. Instead of putting up a kraft brown paper, I put up these pictures of a woman and man drinking a cup of coffee.

Vince: Do you have any photographs of that?

Jane Wright: Yeah. I do.

Vince: That would be great to see. I want to jump into the rapid-fire questions. Just a nice little way to end it and just to get some other insight outside of the framework of the conversation. What is your favourite city?

Jane Wright: St John’s, Newfoundland.

Vince: Oh, yeah. What is an object or thing that you feel was designed exceptionally well?

Jane Wright: My Softub hot tub. I can’t think of a thing that I’ve had more pleasure from ever, and I’ve had it for ten years.

Vince: Right. As a librarian – I’m super keen on this one. What book do you most often gift?

Jane Wright: I’d say the book I most often gifted is a children’s book by Rosemary Wells called Noisy Nora. It was my favourite children’s story. I just loved it. She won all these medals. But when you read it now, it’s one of those things like it just doesn’t have the politically correct – it says some words that you’re not allowed to say anymore. Anyway, that was my favourite children’s story.


Vince: What is a skill or talent that you have that would surprise most people?

Jane Wright: I did a standup comedy gig in the mid to late ‘80s.

Vince: That I did not know, and that is an impressive skill. You didn’t want to continue?

Jane Wright: I ran out of material.


Jane Wright: Halifax is a tiny town. The Nurses Union had me two years in a row to the banquet at their annual convention. I only had a six-minute routine, but nurses were the perfect audience for this.

Vince: If you could go back in time and give yourself advice ten years, what would that be, and what would you say to yourself?

Jane Wright: Well, I’m thinking about the quote that sparked me to decide to change my life at 44, which was Erica Jong, the writer. And it said, “And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” I would just say do it now. I was 44 when I stepped out and did this. I wish I had done it sooner. But go for it. Life is short.

Vince: Man! That’s great advice. Well, thank you so much for having such an important space and place that so many of us have such fond memories of. It was a big piece of many people’s lives. Thank you.

Jane Wright: Thank you. Thank you for coming in the doors.

Vince: Yes, of course.

* * * * *

Thanks for listening to the Design Makes Everything Better podcast by Breakhouse, a Canadian strategic design firm. This was Episode 4 with Jane Wright. A full transcript and show notes for this episode can be found at breakhouse.ca/podcast/4. If you like the show, help us out. Subscribe, rate, and review us on your favourite podcast app and share us with your friends. Have feedback or ideas? Drop us a line at podcast@breakhouse.ca.

[End of Episode 4 – 43:25]

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