Get Real: New South Surrey restaurateur joins a score of Peninsula reality TV stars

Vikram Vij stars in the ninth season of the Dragons' Den

Restaurant magnate Vikram Vij is staring on the ninth season of the Dragons' Den.

It’s no false reality – the Peninsula has a knack for spawning TV talent. Indulge looks at some of our most celebrated reality-show personalities.

Restaurant magnate Vikram Vij isn’t used to failure.

Even with culinary talent, charisma and unbound energy catapulting him into Canadian celebrity status with three restaurants and a handful of judging roles on national television, producers of CBC’s Dragons’ Den made him prove he has what it takes.

The task – to join forces with the reality TV series’ most powerful venture capitalists.

Kevin O’Leary, a blunt business tycoon, and internet mogul Bruce Croxon were set to depart from the show after last season — and leave behind big shoes to fill. Two years and several auditions later, Vij was still waiting to hear if he was chosen for the coveted spot.

“CBC did so much research and due diligence in finding out whether I had what it took to be a Dragon,” says Vij in his usual energetic tone.

“It was like auditioning for a major role in a movie.”

But when the lengthy process was complete, Vij got the news he was yearning for – he would be one of five Dragons to star in the ninth season, along with Jim Treliving, Arlene Dickinson, David Chilton and fellow rookie “finance bad boy” Michael Wekerle.

“It will be the funnest season you have ever seen,” he tells Indulge on his way to last month’s Eat Vancouver, a culinary festival where he showcased his famous Indian creations.

Born in Amritsar, India, Vij immigrated to Alberta in 1989 after a Canadian hotelier invited him to experience Western Canada’s culinary possibilities.

He opened his first restaurant, Vij’s, five years later in a trendy South Granville neighbourhood. The authentic cuisine and strict no-reservations policy led to nightly lineups down the block. Vij is proud that even VIPS such as Martha Stewart, Pierre Trudeau and Harrison Ford had to wait with the crowd to be seated.

In addition to their second, more casual restaurant, Rangoli, Vij and his wife, Meera Dhalwala, recently opened My Shanti in South Surrey, a few minutes from a 28,000-square-foot food processing plant where their ready-to-eat meals are made and packaged. The curries are sold in grocery stores throughout the Lower Mainland.

But all this wasn’t enough for the spirited entrepreneur.

In addition to the Dragons’ Den, Vij is a judge on three other reality shows: Food Network’s Tops Chef Canada and Chopped Canada, as well as CBC’s Recipes to Riches.

“I can easily talk about food because that’s what I do for a living. But even though I had done my research (for the Dragons’ Den), for the first two or three days I was a little nervous,” admits Vij, who is  often seen at public appearances in either his chef’s outfit or traditional Indian garb.

“After a couple days I got the feel of it… and from there it shot off. Not only do you have to make a deal and be polite to the other Dragons, you have to be a bit forceful.”

Since the series is finished filming and set to premiere in September, Vij isn’t allowed to reveal which businesses he invested in, but did say he expanded his portfolio beyond food-related companies.

“It was definitely a challenge and I hope I rose up to it. I don’t want to be that one-song-wonder.”

Based on his success in the Lower Mainland’s food scene, this likely won’t be Vij’s last foray into reality TV.

Dragons’ bite still lingering

Now in its ninth season, Dragons’ Den has attracted a dozen or so brave entrepreneurs from south of the Fraser River.

In 2008, Bill Butchart pitched the Gotta Go, a disposable toilet made from cardboard and biodegradable bags he says would be useful in disaster situations.

Also in 2008, Brenda Martins presented her patented hairpiece, called It’s My Hair, which adds instant volume and length.

Then, in 2011, the Elash family showed the Dragons their All-In-One Gift Wrapper that includes all the tools needed to neatly wrap a present.

A few months later Christina Marcano, owner of a “luxury, eco-friendly dressy-casual” clothing line, pitched her business.

And the list goes on.

Dan Plante, a former South Surrey resident, vividly remembers facing the Dragons.

Chawel in hand and sporting board-shorts with two bikini-clad models by his side, the lifeguard entered the ominous Den.

He had practised his pitch hundreds of times, carefully going over each word that would – hopefully – get a Dragon or two on board.

O’Leary, the most critical and outspoken investor, worried him the most. But, in order to make the $100,000 deal, Plante had painstakingly prepared answers to tough questions “Mr. Wonderful” had asked on previous episodes of the CBC series.

His invention is simple, yet ingenious.

After witnessing countless beach-goers struggle to change out of their bathing suits  by awkwardly wrapping themselves in a towel, Plante came up with the perfect solution to changing in public – the Chawel. It’s half towel, half sleeping bag, with an extra hole on one end big enough to pop your head through.

Cameras angled toward the stage, his models showed the Dragons how they can quickly slip inside Chawels to change from their bikinis into sundresses — all without the risk of flashing the five investors eagerly watching from the front.

They loved the invention and, after some negotiation, Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications, offered Plante $100,000 for a 35 per cent stake in his company.

Plante took a big sigh of relief and accepted the deal.

After months of back-and-forth emails, however, his deal with Dickinson never came to fruition, a situation Plante says is common with deals made on the show. Still, the young entrepreneur is extremely happy to have been given a spot on the national TV show after being weeded out of 5,000-plus entries.

“Especially as a small company or one just starting out, that media is priceless. Marketing has probably been the most expensive thing to do.

“The Chawel has gone through the test. The Dragons have given their thumbs up, so it gives it credibility,” he tells Indulge proudly.


Filming endures crying baby, lightning storm

It’s not only The Den that Fraser Valley residents are interested in.

Among the area’s reality TV stars are Chef Matthew Stowe, Top Chef Canada season three winner (featured on page 10); Bone & Biscuit Co. employee Jennifer Pinch, who placed first on Be the Boss Canada episode (interview next page); Nathalie Heath from So You Think You Can Dance Canada; Sarah Miller, contestant on season three of Big Brother Canada; and BBQ Pitmasters star Angie Quaale.

This long list also includes Sarah Daniels, co-host of Urban Suburban, who looks back fondly at her hectic days shooting throughout Canada.

Showcasing houses back home in White Rock was a relief on her busy schedule, but one day there was a big problem.

The featured homeowners had a cranky baby that wouldn’t stop crying.

“We literally had to hold production until the baby fell asleep,” recalls Daniels with a sigh, followed by a laugh.

“We don’t have baby-wranglers on staff.”

The HGTV series pits Daniels against another realtor (Phil DuMoulin, her real-life brother) to find a family their dream home – in either the city or suburbia.

While frantically filming two shows over six days, often in cities hundreds of miles apart, Daniels was faced with an intense schedule, which included:

Being jet-lagged with only four hours of sleep.

Shooting through a thunder and lightning storm that halted every other production company for the day and shut down Toronto International Airport.

Scoping out four professional outfits to fit in the tight $200 wardrobe budget per episode.

Eating cheap takeout, meal after meal.

“On many occasions, I changed in the back of a car or in a public washroom. There are no trailers like you see… on movie sets,” says Daniels, a real estate agent from White Rock whose resume includes former traffic and weather anchor for Global BC Morning News and radio reporter for CKNW and Rock 101.

“It’s not as glamorous as people think.”

And then there’s shooting in Toronto and Montreal’s 35-degree heat and humidity.

“You’re sweating like a dog, and repeating things so they can get it from different angles,” she says with a laugh.

While there were many positive experiences, Daniels is still perplexed by homeowners who lack common sense on how to make their property sell in today’s market.

The crew, for instance, often faced overgrown lawns and messy houses. Their job was to make the home “look pretty” by moving furniture around and shooting at optimal angles.

“When you know that the outside of your home is going to be featured on a nationally publicized show, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to mow the lawn,” she tells Indulge.


That’s a wrap, folks

Reality TV was a one-time deal for Jennifer Pinch, manager of The Bone & Biscuit Co. in Cloverdale. She isn’t working her way up to host of a nationally broadcast series or judging fierce competitions.

Instead, Pinch appeared on an episode of W Network’s Be the Boss Canada, where she beat out another contestant to run her own franchise of the specialty, health-conscious pet food store.

One competition was to create canine cupcakes from scratch and sell them in a nearby dog park for charity.

“My ingredients were supposed to be peanut butter and banana, but the other girl got to the peanut butter before I did,” Pinch, who became interested in pet nutrition after her American stafford terrier puppy developed allergies, tells Indulge. Even though she admittedly isn’t a baker, she concocted a banana, strawberry and blueberry muffin instead.

With just one episode of reality TV under her belt, Pinch proves the fame is priceless.

“I walk around my neighborhood and people say ‘hey, aren’t you that girl?’ It’s really fun.”



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