Once home to a booming copper mine, today’s Britannia Beach boasts a population of around 300 people. While the tiny town might be sleepy compared to the hustle and bustle of the nearby Lower Mainland, the small businesses that make up the fabric of Britannia Beach are anything but.
In the south-end of town is Galileo Coffee Company, a café and roastery that’s been operating in the 110-year-old Matheson House since 2005. A popular pitstop among Sea to Sky commuters, the coffee house focuses on small-batch roasting and quick, Italian café-style fare.
Those looking for an even quicker road-trip snack, to stock up on liquor – or, really, to stock up on most everyday essentials – can stop in at the Britannia Beach General Store.
Sharing a parking lot with the General Store is one small business that has become a Britannia Beach landmark over the past three decades. Lynne Cook has owned Mountain Woman take-out – and the big blue bus that houses it – since 1983. The restaurant serves up a variety of food-truck classics, but is best known for its legendary burgers and fish and chips.
“Thirty-three years ago, when my first son was born, I didn’t want to go back to work,” she said. “My husband at the time came up with the idea that we should do a food truck.”
Over the years, the business – and the bus – have gone through more than a few changes, from its beginnings as a weekend business that Cook would close-up and drive home, to a permanent parking spot and the addition of a deck for picnic tables, to the two extra letters added to the restaurant’s original “Mountain Man” moniker when Cook’s marriage ended in 1989.
“He became the ex, and it became the Woman,” she explained.
The business also survived more than its fair share of disasters, from floods and fires to near-eviction when the highway was expanded prior to the 2010 Olympics.
“Everyone is really very supportive,” she said. “When something happens, everyone rallies behind you. That’s what Britannia’s all about.”
Adding to the local arts scene, the Howe Sound Gallery specializes in fine art photography, carvings and other unique gift items that are custom crafted by local and First Nations artists who pride themselves on giving new life to saved, salvaged and repurposed materials.
Gold Trail Jewellers and Earthly Crystals & Gifts, with the area’s largest collection of crystals and stones, is towered over by Britannia Mine Museum in the distance.
Across the highway and down the coast from Cook’s restaurant is The Old Customs House Gallery. As its name suggests, the waterfront art gallery was historically used by customs agents to investigate incoming cargo freighters during the town’s mining days.
Danuta Rogula took over the business in 2008, where she now sells her own art along with a few other artists’.
“It’s a beautiful place,” she said. “Who has the opportunity to live five metres from the ocean?”
But despite the benefits proximity to the water provides, the gallery’s unique location is not without challenges. The coastal property routinely suffers land loss during storms and is difficult to access – a problem made worse when a highway island built during the pre-Olympics highway expansion cut off northbound traffic’s ability to access the gallery.
Now, “You have to be well informed that you have to get to the intersection, make a U-turn, turn back 100 metres and cross the railway,” Rogula explained.
She said the gallery’s visitors fell from about a 100 each month to only 10 “in a good month” following the expansion.
Rogula hopes the upcoming Macdonald Development Corporation project – which aims to attract hundreds of new residents to Britannia - will draw more clients to the gallery, while Cook, who says she supports the development, expects the construction will spell the end for the blue bus.
“I think after 33 years I will finally have to move,” she said. “The bus will never be able to be moved after surviving floods and fires.”
But rest assured, Mountain Woman is here to stay.
“I’ll build a new kiosk,” Cook said.
When the time comes to say goodbye to the bus, “it will be a sad day and we’ll be standing there crying, but it certainly owes me nothing,” she said. “It’s been a big part of my life and a good part of my life.”