A Vancouver gastropub lets you eat and drink for free (but, yes, there’s a catch)

 THE GLOBE AND MAIL:  Come for the food, stay for the banter.
Fifty hungry diners take their seats at a 12-metre-long community table, eager to see what chef Paul Haldane has in-store. But before they can dig in, they roll up their sleeves – and pit about 450 kilograms of fruit. It’s all part of the Irish Heather’s Pit for Your Supper series, which gives patrons a free dinner and beer in exchange for manual labour. “It’s been a runaway success – and it’s my cheapness coming out in me,” owner Sean Heather says with a laugh. Like most restaurants, the Gastown gastropub buys fruit from wholesalers. To buy directly from an orchard, say, would be costprohibitive – unless free labour is involved. But Heather listens to his customers: They want to eat local and know where their food is from. So he came up with a compromise.   “Everyone who attends Pit for Your Supper is part of the food chain,” Heather explains. “Over the next few months our customers can order a cherry ale or ice cream and brag that they were part of the process.” Beyond the obvious freebie, most everyone is here to make friends. One couple attended last week to celebrate their first-year anniversary; they pitted apricots on their first date. “This is a fun way to meet people and not necessarily the opposite sex. I came here knowing one person and now I know all these guys,” says Amy Farahbakhsh, gesturing to her new friends. Tonight we’re coring pears using paring knives – easy peasy. Team Pear, at one end of the table, is determined to quarter and core more fruit than their fellow diners. The group of six just met but are already like one extended family. Vince Jui is a seasoned pitter, here for a second time after scoring a spot from the waiting list. Last week Jui pitted peaches, a dangerous venture. Cuts from peach stones are the only accidents on record since Pit for Your Supper started last summer. As the pile of fruit gets smaller, the mood gets even lighter. “I’ve never cut a fruit in my life,” Michael Comley says. “I feel like I’m really working for my dinner.” His wife, Jessica, rolls her eyes. “He barely does the dishes.” By8:30 p.mwe’ve cored for 90 minutes and filled our quota. After the tables are cleared, most everyone orders another round of drinks and dinner is served: dryrub pork tenderloin – tender and flavourful – new-potato salad and coleslaw. It’s a meal worth the effort. An hour later, people are exchanging phone numbers as the plates are cleared. The friendly banter and free beer certainly go a long way to explaining the series’ popularity, but Heather has also tapped into another powerful motivator: nostalgia. “From Ukrainians to Italians to Manitobans, they all tell me this brings back fond memories,” he says. “They used to do this with their grandparents.” So what can patrons look forward to next? “Next year we might do pickles and stuff sausages,” Heather says. “I’m just working on how we can get the dishes done.”