How does a karaoke bar not only survive a pandemic lockdown, but thrive?
Tracie England, the founder and co-owner of the venerable Tracie’s Place Restaurant and Karaoke Bar on the Hamilton Mountain, has persevered against the odds thanks to her thousands of local customers, a kitchen crew serving up a full menu of tasty offerings, and ongoing support of her local community.
England’s key to success? A contagious positivity, made all the more poignant by the very personal heartbreaks she has been contending with in her home life.
“It’s a totally different ballgame. Super exciting, and a huge learning curve,” says England. “We’ve had the restaurant for nine years now, and for 13 years prior to that, I had been running karaoke shows in venues around Hamilton and the outskirts.”
England credits her sister and co-owner Kim Blaskivich for giving her the idea for Tracie’s Place. “She said to me ‘Trace, every venue you host is their biggest night. Put that all together with your passion, how could you lose?’. I really felt that music and singing were my passions, along with making people feel good thanks to my nursing background and having positive energy. I combined all of these with karaoke and created a cool venue.”
Nearly a year ago, watching the spread of COVID-19, England knew what was coming. “I cried when I got the news. We closed a day before the Province mandated us to do so, and I remember being very upset having to lay off my staff, telling them ‘I’m sorry, let’s hope it’s only two weeks.’”
Tracie’s Place held an online event to sell off every single food item – fresh and frozen – along with all of their liquor and beer. Customers would pay via e-transfer and England bagged up the orders.
“There was nothing left,” she says, “not even the sauces. I would walk in and there would be nothing in the establishment but chairs and tables.” She goes on to say that it literally felt hard on her heart and was like starting over again.
As a former nurse, England understands the health stakes and has always prioritized the well-being of her staff and customers. “I have not, for one second, thought lightly of this whole situation. Everyone’s health comes first, so I’m okay with whatever they throw at us. Obviously, we want to stay afloat, but we want to do it in the best way.”
Since that fateful day, Tracie’s Place, like so many other restaurants in the city and the world, has had to fight for its life by adapting to the new circumstances. They have not only succeeded in staying in business, but have continued their years-long record of raising thousands of dollars for charitable causes.
Over its nine-year history, Tracie’s Place has raised over $400,000 in donations. England’s mother is the president of the Canadian Council of the Blind Junior Chapter, and so helping out the community has always been part of her life.
“Prior to the pandemic, we had Kiwanis Bingo nights on Mondays, Nevada tickets, something like 80 comedy shows, 25 hypnotist shows, and bands. If we charged a $10 cover, it all went to the charity of the night. We’ve always given back.”
The pandemic year was no different, with Tracie’s Place helping to create 400 dinners for Mission Services for Christmas, raising $1,100 for food for kids, and doing bottle and can drives (which so far have raised over $1,000 all told).
One notable success was Bring Everleigh Home, supporting the hospitalized newborn daughter of one of their staffers. “Her daughter had been in the hospital for 347 days,” says England. “She needed special equipment and a chair to be able to sit up that cost $5,000. I had started doing online “Karaoke Email Transfer Singagrams”, but for Everleigh, I did a telethon. I was in the establishment, and fans would e-transfer my husband a $10 donation and I would sing a song. I almost lost my voice.”
The end result: $11,740 in donations, and Everleigh was able to come home just before her first birthday.
Key to success has been the Friends of Tracie’s Place group on Facebook, which boasts nearly 5,000 members and growing. “They’re all people who’ve come to our place,” says England, “and who want to help or just love the passion of singing. Someone will literally text me with a random act of kindness, saying ‘We’re sending $20 or $40’, paying it forward for the next customer.”
In recent months, Tracie’s Place has also developed a reputation for having some of the tastiest take-out food in the city: a remarkable development considering that the menu was not always England’s first priority. “Karaoke was always our first focus, as our clientele are almost all singers. Now we’re 98% food and it’s a truly amazing twist. Our food is simple, but delicious. We’re not gourmet, and we’ve never claimed to be. It’s yummy comfort food in troubling times.”
England gives full credit to her kitchen staff. “I am beyond proud of them,” says England, “I could not do what they do. I tell them how appreciated and loved they are every day. Our kitchen manager (and my niece), Brenna Blaskivich, is absolutely amazing and she’s been instrumental in turning us around.”
For first-time customers, England suggests trying the roast beef and pulled pork fries. “They’re fabulous! Not to take away from our other meals, but I feel we’ve really cornered in on fries. The crazier things get out there, the more people love them!”
For those with heartier appetites, England recommends the Hangover Fries with cheese, bacon, Frank’s Red-Hot Sauce, and ranch dressing.
Tracie’s Place is also known for delectable desserts, all made in-house, including their longstanding go-to Apple Crisp, Skor Bits and Peanut Butter Delight, Pecan Caramel Brownies, as well as a recent feature, Japanese cheesecake.
What’s the secret ingredient that makes their food so tasty? “As corny as it sounds,” says England, “it really is love and positivity. It really makes a difference when customers (who soon turn into friends) are happy through our positive vibes. How could you not enjoy our meal?”
England and her staff love to support other local eateries and will regularly order from them. In particular, she acknowledges Firth Celtic Pub, just up the street. “We’ve been spinning off of each other for a long time,” says England. “If I run out of something, I knock on their door and they help. If they need something, we gladly return the favour. That’s what community needs: we’re working together.”
England’s positivity is made even more remarkable considering her very personal challenges close to home, with her husband and father suffering from cancer and her mother’s own needs as a visually-impaired person. “How could I complain about my challenges when people I love are sick around me?” says England. “Christmas was different this year, with my mom at one hospital, my dad at another one, and on Christmas Eve, my husband went in for emergency surgery.”
During that time, England leaned on her supporters, going into her Facebook group to wish them well and sing them a song. “It’s hard not to break down when you throw your heart out there. You’ve got your plate full. It was a blessing to have Christmas dinner with my dad in the hospital this year: because of the seriousness of his condition, they made an exception to the visitation rules. It was beautifully overwhelming.”
How does England keep going? Her answer: karma. “The randomest people are helping me and they aren’t even aware of it. When I open my eyes and check my phone to see two or three people expressing kind words. They have no idea how much it picks people up.”
England calls it a “beautiful ricochet of kindness”, always looking forward and making the best out of every situation she is in.
And looking ahead to a happier, post-pandemic time when people once again gather together in her crowded karaoke bar, England knows what song she’ll sing when she takes the stage in front of a live audience again.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland, the first song I ever sang as a child.”