Natalie Johnny never thought she’d be a business owner at 19 years old, but after Romeo’s in Duncan closed for good, she was determined to purchase the restaurant alongside her boyfriend and reopen it with the former staff.
Romeo’s, at 180 Trans-Canada Hwy. in Duncan, reopened for takeout and delivery on Friday, Dec. 1, after being shuttered for several months, according to Johnny, the new co-owner.
The dining room should be back open in the New Year.
“It closed down May 31st. The previous owners, who were also my employers, they retired,” said Johnny, who was a dishwasher there, while her boyfriend, 23-year-old Quinn Smith, was a delivery driver.
“Both Natalie and Quinn worked there. That’s where they met,” said Stephanie Peter, Johnny’s mom. “It’s a Romeo’s love story,” she laughed.
But then, the pair lost their jobs.
“For the workers and the entire community, everybody was sad,” recalled Johnny. “You know, we have a very tight-knit community, and some people had been coming there for 30 years.”
So she had a dream, and alongside Smith and with help from Peter and her step-grandma Barb Paquette, the restaurant is back open with a facelift and the same Italian-style food.
“So we’ve given it some tender loving care,” said Peter. “A paint job, new kitchen equipment, renovations to the customer bathrooms, the exterior was painted.”
And the same staff, too. Some of whom, according to Johnny, worked there for more than a decade and are thrilled to be back.
“We have really good customer service, and our kitchen is very experienced, and all the recipes are the same, so none of the food is different. The front has a familiar face because we’ve all worked there before,” she said.
“Our head cook and our kitchen manager have been there for over 10 years. So we had a lot of support from them because they know so much.”
“A majority of the staff is the same.”
From co-workers to co-owners
Peter remembers how it all started, saying she was hesitant when Johnny came to her with the idea to purchase the business. Her daughter, a recent high school graduate, had planned to further attend school and get a science degree.
Now, she’s an entrepreneur.
“I jumped in the way that moms do. I did everything I could to help her be successful, so I helped her write a business plan, I helped her do business loan applications and grant applications. I did a lot of research for her,” said Peter.
“She and Quinn, they’ve learned a lot over the past few months. It was really a team effort between the four of us, me, my stepmom, Natalie and Quinn, to get everything in place to reopen the restaurant by December 1st.”
The feedback thus far has been positive, and since the doors reopened, it’s been “crazy busy,” said Johnny.
“Some loyal customers are excited to order the food again,” added Peter. “There aren’t a lot of dining options in Duncan, and when you’re driving through, Romeo’s is one of the first restaurants you see as you’re driving north on the highway.”
But to accomplish this feat is something to celebrate for Johnny and Peter, both Cowichan Tribes members. The restaurant is located on their traditional territory.
“I think about the settlements we would have had along the Cowichan River,” said Peter. “Romeo’s is very close to where some of those villages may have been, so it’s very cool to be able to serve our own community but also the larger community through this restaurant.”
Johnny is still in disbelief about it all.
“It kinda feels like it’s not real,” she laughed. “I’m really young, so people are always really surprised when they see that I’m the owner.”
But she’s excited for what’s to come, and to inspire others.
“To be a woman entrepreneur and an Indigenous entrepreneur, it means a lot. It shows people who are younger than me that they can really do whatever they want,” she added.
“There are no boundaries.”