“And the seagull’s name was Nelson
Nelson who came from the sea
And the seagull’s name was Nelson
Nelson the seagull free”
The folk song is by Des & Dawn, and the seagull obligingly allowed his name to be used by a local Gastown cafe. Nelson the Seagull was opened in 2011 by South African siblings John and Lee Snelgar, along with friend, Jodi Balfour. Balfour has since shifted focus to acting, and Evelyn Neves has stepped in.
At Home in Historic Gastown
Nelson occupies a beautiful building on Carrall Street in the heart of Vancouver’s historic Gastown. Originally built in 1907, and designed by Emil Guenther, the Rainier Hotel occupied the site until the 1970’s. Now Nelson operates on the ground floor, with Di Beppe to one side and East Van Roasters on the other. Above, the Rainier Hotel lives on as PHS operated housing for women. This juxtaposition is the essence of Gastown. The symbiosis of provided housing and an avocado toast serving cafe sums up the neighbourhood. It also explains the necessity of Nelson’s suspended coffee program.
Nelson’s space is cozy and welcoming. The colour scheme is navy and white. The furnishings suit the age of the space and the character of the building. The coffee bar runs along one wall, and reaches towards the back of the spacious cafe.
Nelson the Sourdough
While Nelson was initially conceived as a coffee shop, the size of the space allowed and demanded that something more be offered. Thus, bread. With no previous experience, John began studying and learning about sourdough. His experiments and trials lead to a pretty fantastic final product which serves as the basis of the menu for the cafe, along with Nelson’s selection of house made pastries.
The food menu may be minimal but it is well executed. Service is quick. The eggs served are poached perfectly and the avocados are elegantly sliced and arranged. Now it can’t be definitively proven but Nelson may, maybe, might have been the first place in Vancouver to serve avocado toast. The dish was essentially a college snack for John and Lee in South Africa. Nelson serves simple good food, made to order, to eat in or take out. They are also on Uber Eats.
While the bread baking was first geared to meet in-house needs, the wholesale side of Nelson the Seagull has grown substantially. Nelson now serves twenty-four wholesale customers in Vancouver which is a testament to the high quality of their sourdough. Locals chefs and restauranteurs clearly agree its some of the best bread in town. Good bread is much easier said than done, and a truly good bread makes all the difference, be it in a sandwich or as a conveyance for burrata.
Nelson the Seagull’s Pandemic Pivoting
The pandemic definitely increased demand for Nelson’s bread but it also had a palpable impact on the neighbourhood. I talked with Evelyn about the sudden change. She mentioned how other businesses in Gastown were boarding up their windows, and how that “didn’t feel right” to her and the other owners of Nelson. “We were here everyday,” she explains, and I’m glad that they were because they became a beacon in the neighbourhood.
I don’t know about you but I have a soft spot in my heart for certain favourite places that stayed open in one way or another during the pandemic, offering tastes of the familiar. Zara’s in Granville Island Market is one. I remember buying tapenade with tears in my eyes. Another is Nelson the Seagull.
The first latte I had after a month of lockdown was made at Nelson by John. I was picking up a bread and pizza dough order and when I realized I could take a coffee to go as well. The stop at Nelson that day was in the middle of a toilet paper hunt: it was April 3, 2020. I’m sure I’m not the only customer who appreciated the little normalcies in a time of sudden change. And while Nelson didn’t source toilet paper, they did begin to carry grocery items. In deciding what to source grocery-wise, Evelyn considered what she needed in her own kitchen, and also polled Nelson’s Instagram followers. They sourced and sold what we needed and they still sell eggs, flour, and other grocery items, like pre-made pizza dough, today.
The Starter Project
With almost prescient instinct, Nelson was already in development pre-pandemic on sourdough kits. These launched during the pandemic with everything you need, including video instructions and dried sourdough starter. You can pick up The Starter Project in store or order online and bake your own.