Today’s Special: Case Studies

In tight economic times, people cut their luxuries first. How are Alberta restaurants staying competitive?

Bar Marco, a res­taurant in Pittsburgh, recently tripled its profits by implementing some radical changes: along with an overhaul of its menu, it eliminated tipping, opened up its financials to any and all employees, instituted a base salary of $35,000 and offered health care and shares to its employees from the date of hire. People are quick to laud such bold moves and imply that all one needs for success is big ideas and blind ambition. But for most businesses, the reality isn’t so simple. In fact, some of Alberta’s still-thriving restaurants are successful because of their fidelity to their core principles. They’re doubling down on what they do best – and it’s working.

Alberta Venture talked to three restaurants from across the province to find out how they’re making it through a year in which confidence in the economy has diminished. They told us what works for them and what doesn’t, and what they’re still trying to figure out.

Blink, Calgary

When Leslie Echino moved from B.C. to Calgary and bought Blink in 2007, the fine-dining establishment was heading toward failure. But she was determined to make it a success. Then the recession hit the following year and threw that all into jeopardy. “It was a very scary time,” Echino says. “We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”

It’s a cliché to say that hard work will solve all of a ­business’s problems. But Echino made sure she was involved in every aspect of the business and established a dedicated clientele. And sure enough, Blink survived the downturn to become one of Calgary’s best restaurants. If you call Blink, there’s a good chance Echino herself will answer the phone.

Since the decline in oil prices hit Calgary like a sledgehammer, she’s seen a decrease in the amount of money customers spend. They avoid the expensive wines and the desserts. But volume has remained steady. And thankfully, Echino says, the decreased average spending hasn’t hit the restaurant too hard. She says the lessons she learned in 2008 prepared Blink for the inevitability of another ­slowdown. “We make sure to do the best we can at all times for the customers,” she says. “We want to keep that loyalty. So giving them value for their money spent is one of the most important things.”

Remarkably, Blink’s staff has remained steady, and ­Echino says that nobody has quit, no one has been fired and she hasn’t needed to hire anyone new. She cites this as one of her restaurant’s greatest accomplishments. “You want to go somewhere where you feel comfortable and people know you,” she says. All 26 of her employees have benefits, and the restaurant helps to pay for wine certifications or to send staff to other restaurants to learn.

So while Echino has noticed the downturn at her ­restaurant – if only marginally – she’s kept it thriving because of a commitment to the restaurant’s strengths, and to her own strengths. In fact, she aspires to open a second location. And while “nobody wants to open a brand new restaurant when the economy is like this,” the fact that she’s even considering it is a testament to her ­business’s resiliency. “We’ve worked really hard to reach a certain status in the community,” she says. “That’s really helped us.”

Duchess Bake Shop, Edmonton

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Duchess Bake Shop. Photograph Ingrid Kue

Giselle Courteau, co-owner of Edmonton’s Duchess Bake Shop, is quick to defend her business’s marketing strategy. That is, she’s quick to defend the fact that D­uchess Bake Shop doesn’t actually have a marketing strategy.

Fresh off the success of her recently published ­cookbook, which won the best cookbook award at the Paris Book Festival this year, and Duchess’s inclusion on Buzzfeed’s list of the world’s best bakeries, one would expect to hear talk of expansion. But Courteau has no such plans.

“We just do what we do. We don’t advertise, we don’t market, we don’t cross-promote – we just get up, do what we do, and people like it,” she says. “That’s good enough for us.”

In fact, when Duchess opened in 2009, still in the throes of a recession, she heard from many people (bankers included) that it was a crazy idea. But it found immediate ­success, and hasn’t slowed down. The bakery now has 60 employees, including six next door in Provisions, a bakery-­supplies store and sister company to Duchess. Courteau’s theory is that Duchess succeeds by ­specializing in low-cost items rather than expensive meals: People will still treat ­themselves even if they’re watching their spending (although the bakery also sells out of its more expensive cakes every day.) Business is steady, and Courteau and her staff are trying to keep up. She says Duchess is staying busy by staying small, and she likes it that way. “It’s not ­something that’s expandable,” she says. “We get asked all the time to franchise, or open other locations, but if we want to keep the quality, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Like Blink in Calgary, Courteau cites the ­importance of investing in her employees. Twice a year, Duchess sends kitchen staff to take professional development courses, and the company took its entire managerial staff to France in January to eat pastries and relax. Even with the recent media attention, Courteau is focused on continuing to do what Duchess does best, and to great effect. “Yesterday was a Tuesday and we had a line out the door all day,” she says. “We were completely sold out at two o’clock.”

The Italian Farmhouse, Bragg Creek

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Blink’s Leslie Echino, with executive chef Chris Dewling, says straight-up hard work saved her restaurant in 2008. Photograph Ingrid Kue

Restaurants outside of Alberta’s urban centres face their own distinct set of challenges, and Bragg Creek’s Italian Farmhouse, owned by ­restaurateur Josef Wiewer, knows about all of them. He describes the difficulty in finding employees in a diminished labour pool, of advertising to neighbouring cities and of bringing customers out for events. And he’s noticed a stark drop in volume since the economy started to slow. “Every business here in Bragg Creek, they all feel the same,” he says.

The Italian Farmhouse has the advantage of a good reputation. Wiewer’s customers have come to expect a high level of quality from his meals, and he’s delivered on that, despite the volatile labour pool. (He says 80 per cent of his workforce goes back to school every September.) He’s not afraid of the rising minimum wage because, to attract employees, he’s been paying well above that already. And the ­business is changing the direction of its marketing strategy: rather than continuing to pay for a billboard at $700 a month, it’s reaching out through social media and other online venues. Still, through his 42 years in the industry, he says this July is the softest yet.

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The Italian Farmhouse, top, has a great reputation on its side. Photograph Ingrid Kue

But Wiewer, who also owns the Bavarian Inn in Bragg Creek, intends to stay afloat by appealing to his customers. “We just want to keep our menu interesting and keep people coming back, and that seems to work,” he says. And with the depressed Canadian dollar, he hopes that more Albertans choose to travel within their province for their vacations. Bragg Creek, with its hiking trails, recreational areas and proximity to Kananaskis Country, is certainly an appealing tourist location, and Wiewer hopes to see that translate into more visitors.

In the meantime, as he prepares for the ­inevitable slowdown in October, Wiewer is focusing on his restaurant’s strengths. And as he describes his signature dishes – calamari and wild boar carbonara – he makes a compelling case for a visit.

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