Opening a restaurant and entertainment venue in the middle of a pandemic is not for the faint of heart — but Friends of Dorothy founder Rudy Tomazic saw the potential for a new queer space in Victoria and bet against the odds. Just over a year later, that gamble has paid off.
Tomazic opened the first Friends of Dorothy location in Kelowna when he was living in the Okanagan. He came to Victoria to scout out a second location in June 2020, got to work, and opened the Johnson Street location that December.
The concept behind Friends of Dorothy is a LGBTQIA2S+ space where everyone is welcome. Tomazic describes its essence in five words – fun, colourful, welcoming, warm, and non-judgmental.
“Whether you’re a lesbian, whether you’re bi, whether you’re exploring, whether you’re not sure, there’s just no judgment. Everyone’s welcome. And I enforce that.”
The name is a nod to queer history when identifying yourself as a ‘friend of Dorothy’ was a discreet way of saying you were gay. It also pays homage to Tomazic’s actual Aunt Dorothy. She pulled him aside in his late teens to tell him he was accepted and loved for who he was. At the time, the AIDS pandemic was raging and social acceptance was nowhere near where it is today.
“We fought for years for equality and acceptance, and not have to hide in basements or alleys. And now we have that,” Tomazic said.
That acceptance and welcoming play a big role in the philosophy behind Friends of Dorothy. Staff span the gender and sexuality spectrum, with employees who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, two-spirit, questioning, and straight. Staff also wear pins identifying their pronouns.
“I think that’s the greatest part of this space, there’s no judgement. Come in and be who you are … we welcome you and support you,” Tomazic said.
The clientele is just as diverse, and Tomazic prides himself on creating a space that’s open to all, including people of all ages. He recently received an email from a woman looking to have her trans son celebrate his 10th birthday.
“To hear somebody say, I have a 10-year-old trans son or daughter, just makes me realize how far we’ve come as a society. Because 20 years ago, I don’t believe it would have been said by somebody.”
The diversity and presence of the queer community in Greater Victoria is something that struck Tomazic right away and he makes sure to support other queer spaces such as Paparazzi Nightclub and the Vicious Poodle.
The strong queer community in Greater Victoria has set the stage for the business to thrive, despite opening in the midst of the pandemic. Like all hospitality businesses, he’s had to adapt to shifting regulations. Tomazic described it as a game of “red light, green light.” It’s been a tough transition for the restaurant’s staff especially, to keep pace with shifting public health mandates and social norms. He knows it hasn’t been easy for patrons, either.
Now that the space has weathered two pandemic winters and come out on top, Tomazic’s looking forward to what the future holds. There are plans in the works to open another location in B.C. As for where that will be, Tomazic is keeping it a secret for now.
“For me, it’s about providing places for people to enjoy, come together, be with their family, be with people they love … and enjoy life. And I think we need to go back to those things again because we haven’t been there in a while.”
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