Serving My Community in Newton

The following submission appeared in “We Are Newton: A Neighbourhood Anthology.” See here for more information about the project.

By: Philip Aguirre

As I look back, Newton has had a profound impact on my life. From the early care-free days of late-night swims at the wave pool, hot summer afternoons spent at Unwin Park, to summers power skating at the arena. Over the years Newton has provided me with rich memories that have shaped me, inspired me and as a result, developed a real deep-down connection to the people who live in the area and the community that has become part of my responsibility.

I grew up in a typical immigrant family where an emphasis was put on hard work. My parents opened the Old Surrey Restaurant in 1975. I was nine years old when I was lucky enough to start as a lowly dishwasher. However, I was too short and as a result, I had to stand on a stool to reach the sprayer. Since then I have lived and breathed every position at the restaurant. But like most kids I didn’t know any better and I loved it. So I worked.

Hands down my favourite thing about working at the restaurant has been the relationships. The culture at the Old Surrey Restaurant is similar to one large family. I am a big believer in working side by side with people and supporting them. My staff has always been my second family. On top of that we have customers who have supported us since the 1970s. As you can imagine, we have celebrated, lived and become old together. These relationships are a reason the Old Surrey Restaurant has survived for four decades in Newton.

I grew up with a father who loved westerns. Like most immigrant boomers, he thought Clint Eastwood was a role model. The 1966 classic movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, really hits home with the ever so delicate dance of having a family business. Fantastically, the roles reversed when I took ownership in 2007. However, like a good boy I still listen to my parents, but listening is different from always following their advice.

No one understands the difficulties that you are going through like a parent and previous owner. My parents retired in 2007 and live a relatively stress-free life on the family farm in Chilliwack. They have always been there for me, given me space to grow and to make my own mistakes, and I know they are still only a phone call away when I am in a tight spot. The restaurant, my family and the community have been a huge part in molding who I am today. It’s a part of me. I grew up in these rooms and everyone has been my teacher.

People are everything. My community has taught me to be a leader, a mentor and someone who can listen. I have been shown how to inspire by demonstrating passion, pride, work ethic and a consuming need to adapt to the ever-changing environment. Newton has been my classroom, and I will be forever grateful for the depth of knowledge of the people that have been a part of it.

My childhood path always seemed to have this inevitable feeling that it was predetermined no matter what I did and that someday I would take over the reins of the restaurant. I went off to the University of Victoria and received a degree in Commerce. I followed that up by becoming a Certified Management Accountant.

But being an accountant just didn’t fit. So, I moved to France for two years. I worked at a small French restaurant in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and taught at the local culinary school in the neighbouring city of Biarritz. This happened to be the same area where my father was born and began his journey. Six months later, I was the new boss in Newton, full of energy to revamp and propel the family business into the following decade.

The Old Surrey Restaurant was opened in 1975. The heritage building was built in 1918 and received the 2011 Friends of Heritage award. The walls are covered with Surrey archive photos from the turn of the century that add an authentic, rich feel to the atmosphere of the building. Heritage needs to be preserved, and a building like this adds culture and character to an area that is growing at an extremely quick pace.

The restaurant has been involved in the farm to plate movement for the past four decades as the family owns a farm in Chilliwack that supplies a variety of vegetables, lamb, pork and veal. Local food security is very important. Our communities should be supporting local farmers and even producing small gardens in their backyards. Growing up as a farm boy, I have always been exposed to knowing where my food comes from. These experiences have shaped me, and I hope to pass these experiences on to the community of Newton and my family.

The Old Surrey Restaurant employs 22 local community members. We provide apprentice training for ITA Red Seal Chefs and currently sponsor two staff on their way to achieving their accreditation. Additionally, the restaurant provides soup for the local women’s shelter and recently partnered with the Pop Up Soup Kitchen to help facilitate meals for the homeless in Surrey. Supporting our staff and building community is important.

My parents love to tell the story of me running through the restaurant naked with a packed house of customers. I had a flare for the dramatic at a young age. It’s common to see two generations of the Aguirre family working side by side. I would love to make it three generations. Luckily, I still have the stool that I used to work on but my oldest is only six years old, which means only three more years.

I’ve been lucky. I met my wife in first year university back in 1997. We now have two boys and our baby girl. Balance to life is everything and my family has always come first. That support has allowed me to thrive at work and give back to the community.

As a result, I have had the opportunity to take on a leadership role as Executive Director of the Newton Business Improvement Association (BIA). Fortunately, the jobs are extremely similar as I am building community one relationship at a time and instead of serving my customers I have the pleasure of serving my community. I take an extreme amount of pride in Newton.

We have worked on hosting a variety of events including Groundhog Day, basketball tournaments, live music on the streets and Halloween Spooktaculars. We have beautified the area with graffiti and garbage removal programs, community safety walks, murals, lights and supported local community groups such as Friends of The Grove.

Additionally, the Newton BIA has put a priority on safety, establishing many programs and initiatives such as safety patrols, used needle boxes, homeless counts and creating a dog park. In addition, we are at the forefront of revitalization by lobbying local governments for rapid transit, community infrastructure, and advocating for the homeless, housing and education. The Newton BIA provides a platform for the residents and businesses to make the community a priority.

I am fully invested in the long-term growth and revitalization of Newton. I am proud to have been here for the past 38 years and I am looking forward to the great future of Newton. Thank you for the opportunity to tell my uniquely Newton story.

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