It was July 1979, and 30-year-old Cory Porter was making his usual run to the dump for his landscaping business when he drove by this old-looking diner at 6719 West Saanich Road.
Grumbling for some caffeine to wake him up, Porter stopped and got a coffee before carrying on.
By all accounts, it was a fairly innocuous and uneventful introduction to the building that would become his life for almost half a century.
A few weeks later, Porter was again driving by the diner and was surprised to see it was for sale.
Unhappy with landscaping, he had been looking for a change and quickly decided to buy the space.
He then called up some friends in the restaurant industry to ask whether it would be worthwhile to open a restaurant. He was very quickly told not to.
“They said that the size of this building and the number of seats was not enough to make a profit or a decent living,” he told Victoria Buzz.
But, knowing some guys who owned Smitty’s franchises, they encouraged Porter to give it a go.
It then took him almost four years, from the day he bought the restaurant on July 24th, 1979, until April 1st, 1983, to get financing and make sure the restaurant was ready to open its doors.
The restaurant first opened as the Porter House before becoming a member of the Smitty’s chain.
From that day forward, the restaurant business was his life, and he never looked back. His now-grown daughters both grew up at Sassy’s, with his daughter Jen running the gamut from bussing tables to front-of-house manager for ten years.
“I grew up here in a playpen in the back of the boarding house,” she said.
Now grown with kids of their own, Jen and her sister both began raising their kids at the restaurant the same way they were, with Cory’s grandchildren bussing tables as soon as they were old enough.
But in 2011, tragedy struck the family.
Cory’s grandaughter and Jen’s niece Sapphira passed away suddenly from a rare disease called Hydrocephalus, where fluid accumulates, pressuring the brain and spinal cord.
Prior to Sapphira’s passing, Jen and Cory had been playing around with the idea of moving away from the Smitty’s franchise model and rebranding to better reflect the family-owned restaurant they had always been known as.
The following year, Jen decided that naming the rebranded restaurant after Sapphira was the right thing to do. “Sassy,” as she was known to her friends and family, loved food and would always judged the success of a vacation on the quality of the restaurants. Add in the general sassy nature of the family, and you have a perfect fit.
“We thought it would be a really great way to honour her and celebrate her, and she could be a part of our daily life,” said Jen. “And it doesn’t have to be this sad, tragic, terrible thing. It can be this, this healing and wonderful thing to honour.”
Over one weekend, the family and its staff painted the restaurant, put up new signs, and started a new era. Both Cory and Jen say that moving away from a franchise model has allowed them to run the restaurant the way they had always wanted and give back to the community.
From the couple that comes in every year when they are in town to buy a Christmas tree, to the front-of-house manager who has worked at the restaurant with each of her five kids, Sassy’s is a space for everyone.
The epitome of Sassy’s family atmosphere is their dishwasher of 30 years, Barry, who despite having severe disabilities, has been showing up to work every day with a smile on his face for over three decades and has become the heart and soul of the restaurant.
“[The restaurant closing] might actually be the hardest for Barry he’s worked here for so long,” said Jen.
She says the people that came in and those that worked with her will be what she always remembers.
“I think just being kind of a long-standing place in the community where families tend to go for birthdays or mother’s days or just your average Sunday morning breakfast,” she said.
Although Cory, now 73, always knew something would tear him away from Sassy’s, he never knew what it would be until this year when his wife Candy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Following the diagnosis in April, Cory put his notice to staff that he would be retiring near the end of August and would be putting Sassy’s up for sale. He says that he’d like to spend whatever time Candy has left with her and their grandchildren.
The asking price is $195,000 and the lot is up for redevelopment. Although he hopes somebody will come along and keep Sassy’s going, Cory is content to be stepping away.
The restaurant’s closing ceremony on Sunday, August 21st will feature a traditional Indigenous blanket ceremony and three Tsartlip drummers.
“Chrissy, our frontend manager, she is First Nations, and kind of took the lead on organizing our closing ceremony,” said Jen. “We’ve always had really close connections to First Nations out here which is lovely.”
For that final day, Sassy’s is inviting all former staff back who are in the area or would like to come. Jen says it would be great to see some old faces and reminisce about the last 43 years.
“We really hope that staff will come back from the Porter House from Smitty’s, and from Sassy’s, no matter how they left, because it would just be, 40 to 43 years of staff,” she said. I think it’ll be an emotional day, but also lots of laughter, good memories, I’m sure there’ll be good stories, but the end of something.”
Written by Alec Lazenby for Victoria Buzz