Proposed karaoke restaurant has council singing its praises

Non-liquor establishment targets strong demand from university's international students.

A unique business idea had Nanaimo city council singing its praises Monday, despite an off-key recommendation by city staff to not allow a variance permit.

Aaron Wu, a former international student at Vancouver Island University, said there is considerable demand for a karaoke restaurant serving Asian food in Nanaimo, and that VIU students are bussed monthly to Victoria on weekends to frequent similar restaurants there.

The proposed restaurant will have a main eating area with 12 seats, as well as five individual rooms with a total of 20 seats, where groups can dine and perform karaoke in a private setting with friends.

Similar restaurants are extremely popular with international students in Victoria and Vancouver.

Wu said he has researched the business opportunity for two years and determined there is significant demand in Nanaimo from the international student body for the restaurant, and that 435 Terminal Ave. is the best location for it.

“During my five years in Nanaimo I got a lot of ideas from my friends, who are Chinese, Japanese and some Korean,” said Wu, who began attending VIU in 2007 and earned a masters in business administration. “They told me they do need some traditional Asian food and entertainment. I want to open a traditional Asian restaurant to meet those demands.”

His chosen site, however, can only accommodate 10 parking spaces instead of the development permit’s required 14.

Staff originally supported the plan, but withdrew its support when it came to light that the original building, built in 2001, already had a variance for two parking stalls when it was built. Wu’s request for a variance for two additional parking stalls was not recommended by staff, and an architect’s assessment suggested no more stalls could be built.

“There is very little we can do around that,” said Bil Derby, agent for the building’s owner, adding that nearby businesses had been approached to work out a stall rental program, but that none were interested.

Council, however, saw more value in Wu’s plan than parking issues, and voted unanimously in favour of the permit.

Coun. Fred Pattje said that Wu’s proposal follows several policies in the Official Community Plan, including reusing existing buildings, promoting a vibrant economy, encouraging cultural diversity, creating jobs and ensuring that Nanaimo remains competitive with other B.C. cities.

He also noted that many Asian students live in the area near the proposed site, and that public transit, not personal vehicles, is the dominant form of transportation for the target market.

Coun. Diane Brennan said the business idea helps to fill a void in Nanaimo.

“I’m interested in this for several reasons but right now the primary reason is because it addresses a unique cultural need,” she said. “It creates a welcoming atmosphere for foreign students and I think that’s important.”

Wu said he doesn’t plan to apply for a liquor licence, so the restaurant would be open to patrons of all ages.

VIU attracts about 1,500 international students every year, most of them from China, Japan and Taiwan.

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