Naramata Inn prospers despite COVID-19

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

NARAMATA, B.C. — They purchased an inn and restaurant just a month before COVID struck in earnest. Built in 1908, it had seen incarnations as a hotel, a girls’ school, a family home any many businesses that came and went. This was not a recipe for success, it would seem. But added to the mix were two couples: Ned Bell, chef, and his wife Kate Colley, PR specialist; and Paul Hollands, former president of A&W and Marina Wiesner, creative director.

They bought a 12-key property that was an inn with a restaurant, and made it into a destination restaurant with rooms. They introduced something called Naramatian (pronounced Na-ra-may-shun) hyperlocal cuisine. Chef Bell is more specific, calling the cuisine “classic French Naramatian, classic French technique paired with hyperlocal ingredients. And despite COVID, it became a success.

Well before COVID, in August 2019, the four owners started meeting as a group. “Ned was born in Penticton, and he ran the Cabana Grill there. I moved there in 2007,” Colley told CLN. “We were the only people in our age group in Penticton,” and they got together, dated, married and had kids.

“When most people come up to Naramata from Penticton, they end up on the Naramata Bench, with beautiful cliffs, and many people never go past the bench.” But beyond the bench is the village of Naramata, population 1,500. “There’s something magic about it — you feel it when you come there,” she said.

The history of Naramata is tied closely to J.M. Robinson, who is known as the founder of both Peachland and Naramata, and co-founder of Summerland, B.C. “Naramata was a quick boat ride from Summerland, and it was idyllic. Robinson made it into his own Utopia, bringing opera, a regatta and a paddlewheeler. He even got CP Rail to extend a rail line to Naramata — the Kettle Valley Railway,” Colley said.

Holland and Wiesner had bought a house next door to what was then known as the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa. He and Bell had crossed paths — Bell had even cooked meals at Paul’s house — and they knew they had complementary skill sets.

They two couples purchased the property on Feb. 21, 2020 and started planning a fairly quick renovation and an opening on May 1. Then COVID struck, and they were unsure how to proceed. It was Hollands who suggested that they use the opportunity. Rather than a quick renovation, they invested more money to make the kitchen something special and the property absolutely gorgeous.

“It had the beautiful bones of an older building, and we made it more fresh and modern. We have two local peacocks, Kevin and Peter. They’re special, unexpected, interesting and different. They’re kind of strange, quirky and fun. We used them as our inspiration, incorporating unexpected touches and occasional quirky language,” Colley explained.

The Inn opened on June 5, around the time British Columbians started moving about in their own region. Restrictions had relaxed more by the time they opened the restaurant on June 29.

“We sold out our rooms every night until October,” she said. “We were learning how to run it — there were a lot of new things to learn.” They enlisted Paul Jones, a COVID expert to help them execute and interpret the rules, and came up with some clever COVID innovations. For example, menus were made of synthetic paper that can be disinfected.

When they opened the restaurant, they expected to have 30 covers, but they ended up doing 140 covers or three turns a night. “The food was really well-received,” said Colley. “People said it was as close to France as they were going to get this year.”

“Everything is sourced locally and it takes a lot of work. Sometimes things aren’t quite as local — we source our dairy from Sicamous, B.C., and we use it to make our own butter. Farmers come by, open the trunk and show us their Chanterelles, etc. We’ve had a great response. Coffee, citrus and chocolate are the only things that aren’t local,” she said.

Another advantage is the 43 wineries including B.C.’s only sparkling winery, located within 14 kilometres of Naramata Inn. The railway is gone, but the Kettle Valley Railway bed offers an interesting biking route. And of course, Lake Okanagan is right there as well.

“In the summer, we wanted to be a hub of the community. We had chef dinners, wine-pairing dinners. We offered a new place and concept. We hired quite a few servers in the summer, and we are now looking for an assistant general manager, food and beverage — someone who is a pro and willing to live in a small town.” This summer, Naramata had 50 employees, compared to five or six in the previous establishment.

“In some ways, we benefited from COVID,” Colley said. “When we were small, only locals could come and they did. As we opened for lunch and had more capacity, we got guests from B.C. and some from Alberta. We had more demand than supply — and we were incredibly fortunate to be in that position.”

Next comes the holiday season, which began last weekend with a display of well more than 25,000 lights on the outside of the Inn. “We’re planning holiday menus and putting together gift boxes that we can sell from the Inn and online. The gift boxes will feature Naramatian ingredients.”

The previous Inn used to close in October, but the new owners plan to close in early January; then reopen during the third week of March.