photo Greg Halinda
Opening a restaurant is a challenge at the best of times, and the best of times is not what Steve Niehaus was dealing with when he decided to fulfill his dream of owning a restaurant before his 35th birthday.
Fort McMurray was prospering in the mid-2000s, but that didn’t make it ideal for opening a business in the service industry. Given that the oil and gas boom had driven wages for even the lowliest positions up to a level more appropriate for a junior lawyer in Toronto, keeping staff around for more than a few months was next to impossible.
Still, that didn’t deter Niehaus. He bought an old restaurant named Mitchell’s that got its start as the RCMP’s home base in the community (complete with upstairs living quarters and holding cells) and managed to make it work for the first few years. But by 2009, the persistent labour challenges became too big to ignore. “We ended up at the end of our lease with myself, my wife and one part-timer, and kind of said, ‘What are we doing here? We have to make a change.’ So we created the Chef’s Table by Mitchell’s, which is what you see now.”
What people see now is a restaurant with no seating save for what is arguably the best outdoor patio in town. The Chef’s Table is built around an open-concept sandwich bar, sort of like an indoor food truck, that encourages customers to take their food to go. The layout isn’t the only thing Niehaus changed, either. The menu has also shifted, with a variety of sandwich choices and enough different soup and salad options to fill a schoolroom chalkboard. There’s also a coffee bar serving everything from drip coffee to authentic Italian-style cappuccinos.
But Niehaus insists that while the change in strategy helped, the success of “the place with the yellow bread” (the original Mitchell’s was famous for its so-called “sunshine bread”) is a direct result of the people involved in it – from those who previously owned the business to his wife, Cathy, and his employees. Niehaus’s naturally gregarious nature informs the way his employees interact with customers. “I just tell people when I hire them that I want you to be yourself,” he says. “I have no lines I want you to say when people come through the door. I have nothing I want you to push or up-sell. I’m a firm believer that we’re responsible for that person’s happiness for the next three minutes.”
That approach is clearly working. In March of last year, Niehaus and his wife decided to expand and make her the manager of a second location – the Sunshine Café in the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre at Keyano College. Six months later, the Mitchell’s empire expanded again, adding a location at the Suncor Energy Industrial Campus in Mackenzie Industrial Park.
When they decided to add a third location, Niehaus brought in Owen Erskine, his former apprentice, as a junior partner. “We share all the duties and I’m slowly trying to pass on my knowledge of running the business and human resource skills,” he says. “He’s come on as a junior partner, but I treat him as an equal as far as running the business.” It’s a relationship that Niehaus was on the other side of, once upon a time. Niehaus, who was born and raised in Edmonton, got a job at the Four Seasons hotel straight out of high school and later spent time on staff at the Hotel MacDonald and The Creperie. “I had some amazing, amazing mentors in this trade who made me pretty tough and understand what it’s all about,” he says. “I owe most of my success to those guys at the very beginning.”
Now, he’s trying to have the same influence on Erksine, something that doesn’t always mean riding to the rescue. “When he has issues come up that he’s not experienced with, he turns to me, and I do whatever I can do to push him to advance his knowledge through trial and error,” Niehaus says. “Sometimes it’s OK for someone to sink, so long as there’s someone there to pull them up to the top again.”
Like most people who have spent the majority of their lives working in or near a professional kitchen, Niehaus is intimately familiar with the 90-hour workweek. But, he says, he’s finally in a position as his own boss where he is comfortable enough to let others do some of the work. And while he has paid his share of dues in order to get there, Niehaus says the success that both he and Mitchell’s have enjoyed is inextricably linked with where they’re based. “Fort McMurray, as a place, I would defend to the end,” he says. “This town has gone through some real bad press and bad times with dirty oil (scandals) and crappy-service rumours, but I tell people that [if you] come here you have to stick it out. You’ve got to dig deep and get the second and third job and rent for a while because if you stick it out, there’s no better place for an opportunity. There’s nowhere else with this kind of potential for growth.”