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‘It’s stood the test of time’: Behind Bars at Monkey Tree Pub

Saanich neighbourhood pub still going strong after 37 years
Monkey Tree Pub staff (from left) Gavin Barry, Leah Ralph, Kato Mah, Robert Card and Judy Schlutter. (John Atkinson)

By John Atkinson

It was always Gordon Card’s dream to start his own business—and in 1986 he made that dream come true when he opened the doors to the Monkey Tree Pub.

Card, who lent on his experience in hotel management, initially founded the Monkey Tree with two partners before buying them out and making it a 100 per cent family firm.

And son Robert, 48, who now owns and runs the pub after taking the reins from his late father, said it continues to be a mainstay in the Saanich community and run with the same passion and power Gordon inspired.

“The Monkey Tree was built by my dad on a plot which had an old house on the property and a burnt-down winery across the road,” said Card. “It was the first of its kind in B.C., featuring a private liquor and wine store,” he said.

“And 37 years later it’s still a mainstay. We’re really proud of this place because it’s stood the test of time.”

The pub has also evolved in design and decor over the years with four renovations—the most recent being during COVID-19 when the pub was closed for six months.

Employing the right staff has also been key to the Monkey Tree’s success and longevity. A prime example is multi-talented bartender Kato Mah, 61, who’s been working at the pub for 18 years.

“When I first started, Robert and I worked side-by-side for two years,” said Mah. “And, being the son of the owner, he worked very hard because it was his dad’s business. So I just followed suit, really caring about the business.”

Card chimed in. “And I was incredibly lucky because my dad was smart and I knew I’d be working with one of the best guys in town.

“We’re like brothers from another mother because we’ve been through the thick and thin of it together. He respects me for keeping this place going and the standards high. And I love him because he’s still here, popular and also keeps things together.”

Card started at the family pub dishwashing when he was 12 and the pub’s bookkeeper, Dana, started as a waitress 37 years ago.

“It’s nice to have people working for you who care about the bottom line,” Card said.

The pub’s clientele has evolved as the Monkey Tree has over the decades.

“My dad always said ‘work boots draw Armani suits’. And so we cater to a wide range of clients; everything from weddings and wakes to birthday parties and the Super Bowl.

“I also know four couples—staff members—that have met here and are married now; including my wife and I. My 20-year-old daughter, Cassidy, is now working here too, so that’s the third generation of the family.

“When you run a pub or something similar it’s a field of dreams; you make it and they’ll come. We have music on Thursdays, trivia on Wednesdays, music bingo on Saturdays. There’s no real other hub in the Saanich area for that kind of entertainment.”

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Q & A

What stands out about the location?

Card: “We’re surrounded by sports fields, the Saanich yard, ICBC and the Lochside Trail, so in a very strategic spot. The Lochside is particularly fruitful in the summer. We used to have a lot of people park their bikes here and come in for some food and a Radler (a German concoction blending juice and beer). We’re adding two extra bike racks this spring to cater to those people.”

What are you most proud about?

Card: “That we’re a true community pub. We support between six and 12 sports teams a year, between Lake Hill soccer and the Little League. That’s something my dad was big on. So we’re embedded in the community. We’ve also been known for our good service forever. My dad was a maniac about that. Plus, good value. And we’ve always been known for our stand-out menus.”

(From those menus, I sampled the butter chicken and a Caesar cocktail and both really hit the spot. Card said he’s recently hired a star Indian chef to “up the pub’s world ante”).

And the story behind the pub’s name?

Card: “There was a ginormous 60-foot Monkey puzzle tree at the entrance to the parking lot back in 1986. It was a neighbourhood landmark and could be seen from all around the area. The Saanich municipality put in a new sidewalk in the early ‘90s and cut a bunch of its major roots. The insurance company saw the tree as a risk and had us cut it down.

“The legend goes people were crying on the day it was actually cut down. Those trees take a long time to grow, so people figured it was at least 100 years old. After such a momentous occurrence we had to call it the Monkey Tree Pub.”

What most inspired you in creating the Monkey Tree Pub community?

“For many people, a bar is a kind of church. I mean, why was the sitcom Cheers from the ’80s and ’90s so famous? It’s because it’s a meeting place and is very relatable. So Cheers was very much an inspiration for us.”

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