New kids on the block

The highs and lows of opening a restaurant or bar in Calgary

It’s a great time to be in the restaurant business in Calgary. Our province is currently home to the fastest growing restaurant industry in the country and we’re hungry to eat out more and spend more while doing it according to a recent report by Restaurants Canada (formerly the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association). Although statistics on the number of restaurants that fail within the first year vary Calgary has certainly seen its share come and go. So what’s the difference between one that stays afloat and one that just becomes another statistic?

After a rocky start with mixed reviews from critics and customers alike Market eventually found its footing and celebrated its first anniversary earning a spot as one of Enroute Magazine’s influential Canada’s Best New Restaurant 2013 nominees.

“Being on 17th Avenue is hard because it’s a little different from going on Eighth Avenue where you have a lot of fine dining restaurants” says Market owner Vanessa Salopek. “It took us a little while to find out who we were the menu and what our clients wanted.”

Tom Kearns agrees that it’s not always easy being a small independent restaurant in Calgary. His Montreal smoked meat restaurant Kickers Deli is in its fourth year and he is now feeling more secure but he still recalls some of the difficulties of starting up.

“As a small business it’s very difficult. The city has tried in the last few years to make things easier but it’s still an incredible amount of red tape that a small startup company like myself has to endure in order to open up especially when it comes to the building permits and business license and everything else” he says.

Though she has been in the bar and restaurant industry for 25 years Jo Lowden says that she ran into similar issues when she and her husband Stephen opened Pig & Duke two years ago.

“I would have opened at a different time if I would have known the obstacles that we have to overcome” she says.

Despite not being open for very long all three owners say they have had to adapt quickly to customer demands.

“I thought I’d be busy in the evening but what I found out was that my bread and butter is the lunchtime crowd” says Kearns. “I would’ve sworn that people would still go out for deli and smoked meat before a hockey game because I’m close to the Saddledome and I’m licensed. Do what they do in Montreal — go out for smoked meat and a beer in the evening. But that’s been difficult.”

For the Pig & Duke Lowden says the key was to fill a niche. “Calgary has a need for true neighbourhood pubs and that is what we provide” says Lowden. “We have grown with our neighbourhood.”

The adaptability of these restaurants has not only kept them open but has also served as free marketing as happy diners provide publicity via word-of-mouth.

“We had a lot of buzz surrounding our restaurant so it was go go go from the get-go and we weren’t expecting that” says Salopek. “We were expecting to do what most new restaurants do — they start off slow and within the year they start picking up more traffic and more people get to know about you. But right from the get-go we couldn’t have enough seats to feed everyone so it was awesome. It was unbelievable.”

Salopek has been working with her team to continue to evolve Market to keep customers coming back. After a great response to the live local music at the restaurant’s one-year anniversary party she hopes to make it a regular feature. The restaurant is also hoping to open an actual market in the future.

“We just have so many people calling us wanting to come in and buy our bread buy our cheeses our preserves our jams — basically everything we make here in-house” she says.

Despite the big changes on the horizon Salopek believes that having a single guiding philosophy to the business is the secret to success.

“Making sure you have a clear vision a clear concept clear values of what your restaurant’s going to be and speaking to them” she says. “A lot of restaurants will try to be what everyone wants them to be so they’ll flip-flop their concepts or they’ll try too hard to attract the new trend.”

Kearns has more practical advice for aspiring restaurateurs.

“Have your economic house in order. Whatever money you think is going to be enough it’s not enough” he says. “Always seek good advice in the field in which you’re opening your business. Talk to veterans who have been in the business and ask them about the highs lows and start-up lows.”