Backcountry Pizza

more about riel Cairns & Backcountry Pizza

Riel Cairns - Backcountry Pizza

Where were you and what were you doing before you opened Backcountry Pizza?

While visiting Pemberton with my partner Melissa during the May long weekend in 2008 and having an afternoon bite on the patio at the Pony, a job ad in the Pique caught our attention. We decided we would move together to the area if Melissa got the job. She was brought on to the pre-Olympics communications team at RMOW, and we formed an insta-family with her 8-year-old son and a baby on the way in a humble little cabin on the south end of Alta Lake. I struggled to find my way, working mainly in all sorts of food and beverage realms (catering, banquet serving, waiting at restaurants, supervising for WB), and being fired from a good number of them. As our family grew, we relocated to Pemberton, in 2015, and continued working in Whistler. I finally found a happy workplace with Walter Walgram, and his wonderful service team at the Trattoria di Umberto, and stayed there for 3 years (my longest-tenured job), until it closed.  Curiously, we wound up in a home on the opposite side of the Glen from where I had previously stayed as a 19-year-old adventurer.

What made you decide to open Backcountry Pizza?

The ownership of the Trattoria had given the staff a very long notice that the restaurant would be closing for extensive renovations, and, given my general misfit experience, I was doubtful I could find somewhere else to happily work.  In 2005, I completed a business degree in entrepreneurship but had not found an occasion to put the degree to use.  While the end of my time at the Trat was in sight, the original owner of Backcountry Pizza listed his failing business for sale at a reasonable price. I figured that it was finally time to surrender and acknowledge my unemployability, and to take a bet on myself. The pizza shop presented as a manageable challenge, given my limited, but relevant background. I really had no idea what I was doing, but set about building a business that was simple, high quality, and customer-focused. We used the equipment from the old business but rebuilt everything else.

What are Backcountry Pizza’s most popular menu items?  

Pizza! And Beers on our back patio! Our menu is limited (by design) and almost everything is well-loved by someone.

Your staff has been with you a long time, what is your secret to retaining good staff?

As an employer, I give my staff a lot of freedom to contribute, in their own way, and to make the job their own. I trust that staff will identify what needs to be done, and take ownership (Indeed, it makes me happy to hear when staff are mistakenly identified by customers as “the owner”). So long as quality pizzas are delivered reliably to customers, and staff are good with each other, I am pretty hands-off in managing the process, from beginning to end. This doesn’t work for all on-boarded employees, and that is ok.

The job is also quite rewarding for everyone, on a community engagement level, which is more a credit to Pemberton than it is to me.  It is fulfilling to be greeted by friendly faces at the shop day in/ day out, week in/week out. I have been tremendously fortunate, from the beginning, to have always had a caring, competent backbone of veteran industry staff, who anchor the squad, and show the way when new members arrive.

My mother, Sandra, is an integral, but hidden, part of our team; attentively cleaning on Mondays and filling in for extra support when the need arises. The shop presently employs 4 FT and 3 PT staff.

What is on the horizon for 2023?

I’ve signed on to a new commercial space that will be built out as an off-site production facility.   This will allow us to streamline operations at the shop, to reintroduce seating to the back of the shop, and to help service our growing pizza operations up and down highway 99.   We anticipate being operational at our new space by July 2023.  Projecting into 2024, we will look at opening a storefront at the new facility with different non-pizza offerings.

We are ever thankful for our loving community, and for the exceptionally strong economic zone that provides for all of us.

Who are you outside of work?

This is the hardest one! I am mostly a doting father to a 13 year old son and 11 year old daughter.  Also, a dedicated partner to Melissa, who is the creator of the Pemberdise brand that is featured at the shop, and the human companion to two silly doodle dogs. I enjoy tranquil dog walks out of cell phone range, cold summer dips in local swimming holes, marveling at our surroundings, and feasting on the bounty of Melissa’s beloved garden. I  snowboard, in winter, to clear and focus my mind. Finally, I am a certified pilot of highway 99 Pemberton-Whistler, and am nearly able to complete the drive blindfolded.

If you’re hungry, order a pizza!

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