Epicureous in Edmonton: 2020 Year In Review

The pandemic wreaked havoc on life as we knew it. As Alberta exceeds 1,000 lives lost to COVID-19 amidst a holiday season under near-lockdown, it feels somewhat trivial to reflect on the food and hospitality scene in Edmonton.

Still, there is no doubt that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how we dine out in the future, even post-pandemic. For businesses that are able to outlast the successive waves of the disease as we await mass immunization, some of the pivots fulfilled out of desperation may become permanent.

Restaurants such as Corso 32 and Tokiwa Ramen continued to produce meal kits even after indoor dining was permitted again in the summer; these specialty items will appeal to those more comfortable in their homes or as an entertaining fail safe even after the “new normal” returns.

It was no surprise that delivery services took off this year, with many people reducing non-essential trips outside the home. Although Skip the Dishes made concessions late in the year to temporarily decrease their commission fees, the 20-30% cut taken by third-party delivery apps has severely impacted the bottom line of many businesses. As a result, bakeries like Duchess, fast-casual restaurants like Filistix, HanJan, and Meat/The Next Act/Pip, and fine dining establishments like XIX Nineteen, chose to adopt in-house delivery (joining the ranks of pizza joints and Chinese restaurants). It isn’t an easy undertaking, but hopefully it can be more financially sustainable for them in the long run.

Some chefs, including MilkCrate’s Steven Brochu and Shaw Conference Centre’s Serge Belair have staked out a greater online presence in the form of personalized cooking tutorials or demonstration videos. Food Bike Tours rebranded to Chef Table Living, providing home cooks with chef-created recipe kits and instructional videos. This continues the trend (albeit virtually) of what chef table dinners started by further closing the gap between the diner and the chef.

One of the pandemic adaptations that has been most transformative to the consumer experience has been the upgrading of online ordering systems. Sugared and Spiced, Cartago, and Bon Ton Bakery were among those who debuted more seamless ways for customers to pre-order items for pick up, minimizing time spent in line and indoors. The convenience of pre-paying and access to visuals that aid in product selection will likely prove to be an essential and worthwhile investment.

Tokiwa Ramen

Here are a few other items notable to me in 2020:

  • Curiously, the pandemic pivot that didn’t take to a greater extent was outdoor dining spaces and winter patios. Some, such as Little Brick and Rocky Mountain Ice House/Cask and Barrel have invested significantly in their outdoor spaces, but given all the talk in the fall about the need for winter patio extensions it doesn’t look like many have taken the City up on this. It would be interesting to know if this relates more to the City’s aversion to approving requests on certain types of streets.
  • Considering the pandemic, it was another banner year for the expansion of some local businesses: Workshop Eatery grew with two locations of Woodshed Burgers and three branches of The Greenhouse; Culina on the Lake opened in Hawrelak Park; RGE RD added The Butchery; the folks behind The Sugar Bowl opened up Eleanor & Laurent; Love Pizza added outposts in southwest Edmonton and in Spruce Grove; and Calle Mexico and HanJan extended to three locations each.
  • Independent cafes continue to pop up in all corners of the city, and perhaps none too soon, given the rate Starbucks and Second Cup have been closing shops. This year, we welcomed The Dapper Beaver, Amandine Cafe, Krew Cafe, Mood Cafe, Cafe Neo, Intent Coffee, La Bosco, Bistro 99, Belge Cafe, Ch, On the Edge, and additional locations of Square One and Remedy Cafe. Not to mention CoffeePass launched in November, which intends to help promote some of the same independent cafes.
  • Given the hardship the hospitality sector has experienced this year, the number of closures may not seem as high as expected. However, this may change in 2021, depending on the length of lockdown-like measures. Among the businesses we lost in 2020 were Al Centro, Barking Buffalo Cafe, Dauphine, Die Pie, Doan’s, Doppio Zero Pizza, Il Forno, London Local, Prairie Noodle Shop, Royale,  Veggie Garden, Wishbone, and ZINC.
  • Collaborations between local businesses continue, but this year, even more so to help other independents when possible. The #eatloveeatagain initiative in December was one example, while Yelo’d has leveraged their delivery service to help other brands. In a creative twist, MilkCrate and Why Not banded together for a friendly burger competition.
  • In June, Linda Hoang set off a social media firestorm for Yoshii Express, an Old Strathcona eatery that was struggling. The public response to her posts was unprecedented, with line-ups at the restaurant for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that level of support wasn’t sustained in the months following. This illustrates both the brilliant possibilities of social media but also its fickle, top-of-mind nature.
  • On a related note, advocacy for local restaurants formalized in the Edmonton Independent Hospitality Community, led by Cartago and Fleisch owner Katy Ingraham.
  • The Edmonton food media scene contracted again this year, with Liane Faulder departing the Journal for a second time. Graham Hicks, who wrote a regular food column for the Edmonton Sun, re-retired in June, amidst some controversy when two local food writers re-surfaced troubling previously published reviews.
  • The Province relaxed regulations on low-risk home-prepared foods in June, paving the way for many home-based “pandemic businesses”, such as Kryzy’s Kitchen and Bonne Vie Bakery. Time will tell if they can maintain and grow a foothold in the crowded market.
  • Similar to the appetite for food delivery, grocery delivery services exploded in the last year, with more than a dozen new options available in the Edmonton area. These include independents like Italian Centre Shop, Meuwly’s, Steve & Dan’s, and Effing Seafood, and big players like Sysco and Gordon Food Service offering direct-to-consumer options. Bountiful Farmers’ Market also became the first market to offer delivery.

You can check out previous year in reviews here.

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