The restaurant business is known to be fickle, with places opening and closing as often as a beer fridge on a warm summer evening. But isn’t that the nature of small businesses in any sector? Statistics show that eight out of 10 small businesses close within 18 months of opening, a record for futility that should have any budding entrepreneur going over the projections once again and relying more on the pessimistic than the optimistic numbers for guidance. In actual fact, restaurants might be in a better place than small businesses in other spheres. Restaurant receipts have been steadily climbing since the Second World War, growing at more than twice the rate of inflation to a $72 billion annual industry. Restaurants Canada says that number will grow again this year. The tricks, as with any business, are to know your industry, know your market and know your customers. To prove it, we spoke with three restaurateurs who opened in Calgary in the past year. The city has hardly been a font of economic optimism lately, but these three have barreled ahead and each is, in its own way, finding a sweet spot.
Una TakeawayOpened: June
Jayme MacFayden and Kelly Black opened Una Takeaway in direct response to consumer demand. They already had the successful Una Pizza + Wine and the more upscale Ox and Angela in their BMeX Restaurant Group stable, but found that customers wanted Una’s food to go. “We had to cut off the takeout during rushes to give priority to customers in the restaurant,” MacFayden says. “It could be a one-and-a-half hour wait to get a pizza.” The solution was to lease 5,000 square feet next door and expand. But that was too big for just takeout pizza. So Una Takeaway was expanded to include a bakery section, sandwiches, salads and family dinners.
What’s been your biggest challenge? “People are used to coming to Una for pizza, and now we have all these other options. It’s been challenging to share that message with them when they’re only in the space for a couple of minutes.”
On opening during a recession “If we hadn’t committed to the project so far in advance, I don’t know that we would have taken the leap for such a big, ambitious space. But we’re here for the long haul. We’ve designed this space to feel timeless and we’re hoping to grow with our customers and be here for 15 or 20 years.”
What’s your differentiator?
“We pride ourselves on having a relationship with all our suppliers. We could order all the food we need from one company, but instead we choose to use 60 different suppliers. We get our mushrooms from one person and our tomatoes from one person and our basil from one person.” Una also buys from 14 urban farmers. The kale salad for which Una is famous is, during spring, summer and fall, grown in the city.
Ricardo’s HideawayOpened: July
Stephen Phipps had been running the Bourbon Room for a couple of years when he pitched another idea to his bosses at the Concorde Group: a restaurant and rum bar with a decidedly Caribbean flavor. The result is Ricardo’s Hideaway, a small, cocktail-focused spot serving jerk chicken, rice and beans and other Caribbean fare. It opened in July.
“If you’re doing a good job, people will still come spend money. You’re giving them a bit of a break from the stress of working in this economy. And people still like cold beer, right?”
Phipps says Ricardo’s gets its competitive advantage from an affordable price point, a unique menu including its extensive rum bar, and a great location just off Calgary’s popular 17th Avenue. “There are only two or three true cocktail bars in the city, and we’re offering a type of food that nobody on that strip is doing,” he says. Even so, Concorde was cautious when launching Ricardo’s. “We wanted to open a year earlier, but put it off with the economic climate,” Phipps says. “But we had this space and it was just too good not to use. We felt the concept was something that was going to resonate with Calgarians, so we threw caution to the wind and went for it.”
On the Caribbean theme “It resonates in Calgary where it’s cold so much of the year. A lot of people have been south and all over the islands. But maybe you can’t make it down this year when it’s minus-30 here, but you can pop down and see us and have a piña colada and feel like you’re away.”
Small is big “We’re fairly tiny, with 40 seats inside and 50 on the patio. We didn’t open a massive bar and restaurant that caters to everyone. It’s small and it’s unique enough that I think people are going to search it out.”
“It’s unbelievable. People will sit on a patio when it’s cold. There have been nights when we planned to close the patio, but it was full at 10 o’clock at night. It makes you scratch your head a little bit, but it’s hard to complain about that.”
Ten Foot HenryOpened: March
Aja Lapointe left her job managing Una Pizza + Wine and, together with her husband Stephen Smee, launched Ten Foot Henry last March. The key to their early success, Lapointe says, was the research they did before picking the location, which for them was the Victoria Park area of Calgary’s Beltline. It’s already a dense neighbourhood, and it’s in a period of growth and revitalization. “We signed a 15-year lease, so we had to commit,” Lapointe says. “There are lots of condo-dwellers and millennials in the area looking for food they don’t have to cook.”
On opening during a recession “Two years ago, when we started planning, it wasn’t as grim. But once we started getting a lease signed and doing paperwork for bank loans, it started to really hit the fan. We had to believe in what we were doing and where we were doing it.”
How’s it going? “It has exceeded our expectations in every way. Last night we did 160 people for dinner, on a Tuesday night in August!”
What’s your differentiator? “Seventy per cent of our menu is vegetable focused. There are very few vegetarian restaurants in Calgary and they tend to err on the hippie side of things, where they’re using meat replacements. Here, you can have a celiac, a vegan and a carnivore at a table and everyone can share and enjoy.”