British Columbia

Vancouver comedy and arts club to take final bow as pandemic-incurred losses mount

The Kino Cafe on Cambie Street is the latest casualty in a growing list of restaurants, pubs and clubs unable to make ends meet amid mounting public health measures.

After decades of flamenco dance and standup comedy, the Kino Cafe can't overcome COVID-19 health restrictions

The Kino Cafe on Cambie Street is one of Canada's few flamenco venues and is also home to the city's longest-standing comedy night. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The six patio seats are a far cry from the 80-person capacity floor the Kino Cafe was used to filling before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once a bustling hub for flamenco dancers and up-and-coming standup comics, it's now a money pit for owner Steve Allen — the financial strain enough to make him wave the white flag after years of promoting colourful performances.

"Basically, it killed the Kino," said Allen. "With no performances in here, the stage is a very lonely place."

The Kino Cafe on Cambie Street is the latest casualty in a growing list of restaurants, pubs and clubs unable to make ends meet amid mounting public health measures in response to the pandemic. Most recently, the province banned indoor dining to curb a spike in cases. Those measures have been extended until at least May 25.

Owners like Allen are confronted with a tough decision: try to weather the storm or close up shop.

"There's just no end in sight with this pandemic and opening full capacity again. I don't have any idea when that's going to happen again, and I don't think anyone does," said Allen.

Owner Steve Adams at the Kino Cafe in Vancouver, British Columbia on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The cafe is now for sale and has already caught the eye of prospective buyers. But Allen says it's unlikely whoever takes over will carry on with its longstanding tradition of performance art. 

Decades of dance and laughs

The Kino Cafe has been open in Vancouver for nearly 30 years, a flamenco institution long before Allen owned it. Flamenco is a style of traditional music and dance that originated in Spain.

Allen was a regular patron, eventually promoting a weekly comedy show from the venue.

The restaurant's previous owners put it up for sale, but the buyers backed out due to licensing issues, Allen said. That's when he jumped in.

"I thought, you know what, I can afford to take a risk and hopefully save the comedy and the flamenco," he said. "I really felt this place should be saved. This is the biggest stage for flamenco outside of Spain, in the world. And I didn't know that until I bought the place."

Comedian Ivan Decker started his career performing at the Kino Cafe. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Allen kept the tradition alive, alongside his weekly comedy show where many comics have honed their craft — a list that includes Graham Clark, Ivan Decker and Dino Archie.

'It's not gonna be enough'

Health restrictions have taken a toll on the club over the past year, however. First, the province put restrictions on live music and dance. The club tried to make ends meet by running standup comedy events to reduced crowds, but those were later restricted as well.

In an attempt to help keep the doors open, local comedians launched a fundraiser to "Save the Kino."

At the time, Suzy Rawsome, who runs the comedy nights at the Caveman Cafe in downtown Vancouver, told CBC News that Kino has been one of the city's most important institutions as other venues have come and gone over the years. 

"The Kino is one of those places that's like the OG of comedy in Vancouver," Rawsome said in December 2020. "I feel really bad for him to have to deal with impending closure when he's taking all this on, basically just for the love of the arts."

Martha Villa Martin is a regular performer at Vancouver's Kino Cafe, which is celebrating 25 years of flamenco. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

They raised about $17,000 of their $50,000 goal.

"As much as it's helped, it's not gonna help enough," said Allen.

Down but not out

Until the business sells, Allen will keep the patio open on sunny days.

Still equipped with a PA system and scores of original art that lined the walls, Allen says he hopes to open a new club once the pandemic settles.

He could even bring back the Kino name — as long as whoever he sells his business to doesn't use it.

"I have such a passion for standup. I really want to keep doing this."