Black Box Hospitality Embraces Pandemic-Induced Changes
It’s been over ten years since Nate Box opened the modest but mighty Elm Cafe in Oliver, and it’s safe to say that in that decade, he’s seen it all. Now at the helm of Black Box Hospitality Group, made up of four businesses including restaurants and a liquor store, even that experience couldn’t prepare him for the challenges wrought by a global pandemic. “The hardest part was the initial closures in [March] 2020,” said Box, “We laid off nearly 60 staff members overnight.”
Box’s longevity in the hospitality business is no accident, however. He attributes much of their success in navigating the changing restrictions to his strong team and their ability to continuously adapt. He also shared that some of the changes made in the last year may end up being permanent. At June’s Delicatessen, for instance, they expanded the takeaway menu with more transportable food and added shelves for pantry and home items. “It’s strange [be]cause we’re not sure if the plated-style menus we initially came up with will ever return,” said Box. “This grab-and-go style has been so much more accessible and simple to execute.”
Box shared that Highlands Liquor has, like other liquor stores in the province, been busy. However, to overcome the narrow margins in the business, they have been fortunate to build up a loyal clientele who return for their curated selection and staff knowledge. “It’s been encouraging to see people stocking up…on amazing craft Alberta beers, spirits, and small producer natural wines,” said Box.
District, on the other hand, was hit hardest, as it has been closed for nearly ten months in total since March 2020. Reliant on traffic from workers occupying the surrounding corporate and government towers, Box indicated that District won’t resume even partial operations until after Labour Day. In the meantime, the space has since been transformed to a pizzeria from Wednesdays to Sundays, called Young & Restless. “Pizza just makes sense for the District space and the current dining and takeout trends,” said Box. “Not to mention that that neighbourhood is in a bit of a pizza desert.” Box acknowledges (and supports) the success of other pizza concepts that have developed during the pandemic such as Sepp’s and High Dough, but is aiming to be more affordable and accessible than his counterparts.
While previous menus at District included pizza, the pies served at Young & Restless are quite a bit different. “[That pizza] wasn’t the kind you could box up and takeout,” said Box. “So we went back to the drawing board…Erica [Box, chief baker] spent 6 weeks or so figuring out a dough recipe that would work.” The cauliflower and sage pizza has carried over to the new menu, but other topping combinations, such as a mushroom ricotta and meat lovers, are all different.
Their newest establishment, Fox Burger, required the biggest pivot. Pre-pandemic, they relied (as most other restaurants did) on in-person dining. “We learned and adapted new software, websites, and promotions to change on the fly,” said Box. “And the neighbourhood and city rallied behind us to be their go-to choice for burgers and beers.”
The food truck was a fortuitous addition, when an ad for a fair priced, well-equipped truck came up. “Through the pandemic our limitation has been location and size of the kitchen,” said Box. “We didn’t and don’t need a big ass dining room to do what we were doing, we needed a bigger kitchen.” The Fox Burger truck has been in operation since May, with Wednesdays earmarked for service in different areas across the city. “It’s been great fun and also such an amazing way to test and engage with other neighbourhoods,” said Box. “We’ve had block-long line ups and even served 200+ burgers one evening in the pouring rain.” Box sees the truck as an additional revenue stream that will help Black Box recover in the long run.
While he stresses that Black Box has been doing okay, Box isn’t certain of the future, even with the removal of all restrictions as of July 1. “To be frank, I think that small businesses, especially those like ours in hospitality, are unaware of our vulnerability right now,” said Box. “Summer’s here, people are excited about going out, it’s bustling and it feels normal, but we’re forgetting that most businesses have been able to rely on government subsidies that will dry up soon, and that debts will be called, and that the cold slow months are four months away.”
- Since mandatory mask requirements were lifted on July 1, some businesses have continued to require that patrons don a face covering. These include Fleisch and Sugared and Spiced.
- Depending on the community and the approach, restaurants across Alberta, including Campio Brewing and Fleisch, are grappling with the challenges that come with the removal of restrictions.
- Some patrons rang in the occasion of lifted restrictions at BRBN St at West Edmonton Mall at midnight on July 1.
- It looks like the folks behind Meat, The Next Act, and Pip are getting into the sandwich business with Pal’s.
- Medium Rare Carnivore Club has opened in Chapelle at 6492 Cartmell Road SW.
- Coals & Cleavers, operated by the Alberta BBQ Collective, held their official opening over the weekend. Find their pop-up patio at 10318 100 Avenue.
- Wheet Nothings, a gluten-free restaurant operating in Stony Plain, has gained quite the following for their donairs.
- Twisted Indian Wraps is a Canadian-based chain. They opened their first location outside of Ontario in Edmonton. Find them at 4440 Calgary Trail.
- Another Sari Sari Market, highlighting Fillipino businesses, will be held on July 24, 2021 at 9912 72 Avenue. Sosyal Scoops and Filistix will be among the vendors.
- Linda is hosting two cooking classes on July 27 and 28, 2021 with Pei Pei Chei Ow as a part of her month-long birthday celebrations. This comes as a part of her personal reconciliation efforts: “One of those acts includes pledging to spend money intentionally supporting local Indigenous businesses, such as artists and restaurants.” Tickets are $40, and 100% of the ticket fee will go to Pei Pei Chei Ow.
- On July 1, some businesses including Biera, Kind Ice Cream, Rosewood Foods, and Roasti Coffee chose to donate profits to organizations supporting Indigenous survivors or anti-racism groups.
- The Thursday 124 Street Market has been forced by the City of Edmonton and 124 Street Business Association to reduce their footprint to pre-COVID guidelines. This will mean vendors will not be able to physically distance booths. They are asking patrons to fill out a survey in July and sign a petition to support an expanded footprint. However, organizers are threatening to potentially move the market if a resolution cannot be found: “In the event that the market cannot secure additional space to support 60+ vendors and is found to not be able to operate safely and effectively for customers, we will be forced to move the popular, flagship 124 Grand Market location that has been operating harmoniously in the 124 Street neighborhood the last decade.”
- EDify’s Best Things to Eat series continues with Partake’s beef tartare and the bronzed ribeye from Rigoletto’s.
- Meuwly’s Artisan Food Market just celebrated their third birthday.
- Heat wave or no heat wave, it sounds like the Calle Mexico patio is becoming a popular spot for Edmontonians.
- The Transit Hotel restaurant owner is frustrated with the challenges he’s faced with the City’s permitting process, which has delayed their opening.
- There are consequences to being the last to adopt new service methods: the Edmonton Downtown Famers’ Market is closing their curbside pick-up option after six months in operation (Old Strathcona and Bountiful are continuing their programs).
- Food Day Canada is asking Canadians to pledge to shop, cook, and dine on Canadian ingredients on July 31, 2021.
Urban Agriculture and Farming
- Ceres Solutions is an Olds-based company taking spent grain from the brewing process then reusing it to grow mushrooms, then as protein-enhanced livestock feed.
What I Ate
- I hit up the Campio Brewing Market that takes place every other week to pick up cinnamon buns from Typ Top Bakery. I have a soft spot for them and with the business also being a social enterprise, it’s a win-win.
Typ Top cinnamon buns
- Forgetting your lunch isn’t so bad when T & D Noodle House is the fallback!
Grilled chicken and spring roll vermicelli bowl from T & D
- Mack and I had a breakfast date at OEB last week. We’re still not comfortable dining indoors, so we’re grateful for the restaurants who have preserved their patios even as they’ve more fully opened up their dining rooms.
Breakfast plates from OEB