No Miracle on 124th Street

Restaurant closures are part of a troubling trend
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It’s a Thursday morning in August. Frank Olson is in Canteen’s kitchen chatting with his longtime friend, Dave Jackson. In a few hours, he’ll get ready to open the restaurant.

A month from now, the decade-long run of Canteen will come to an end.

Canteen offers casual dining, which was something new for co-owners Frank and Andrea Ols0n back in 2012. It didn’t take them many years to win awards and their customers’ hearts. It has been a turbulent couple of years since COVID first struck Alberta, and the Ols0ns are coming to the end of their current lease with CKDESIGN Associates Inc. That company was not only their landlord, but the designers of the Canteen space.

This isn’t the first time Frank and Andrea said goodbye to a restaurant. They served fine diners in Strathearn at the  Red Ox Inn. The small place with no more than 10 tables couldn’t survive with a 50 per cent capacity during the COVID lockdown. The last service was held in March 2020 and the business closed for good in January of ’22.

Before COVID, the still-in-progress Valley Line LRT construction had already been a disaster for Red Ox Inn’s operation. Construction for the Valley Line began in spring of 2016. That line is still not operational.

“Our customers would avoid the entire area, not just the Red Ox,” says Frank. “And the [phase two of the Valley Line] LRT construction will soon happen on Stony Plain Road, which has a bit of distance to us [at Canteen], but we just don’t want to go over that again. It’s going to affect the business in the whole area.”

Even if the Red Ox Inn had survived the past two years, the restaurant would still have had been impacted by redevelopment in Strathearn Heights.

A new project will increase residential density just north of the new Valley Line LRT stop. The local strip mall’s tenants, including Juniper Cafe and Ralph’s Handi Mart, have received notice to be out by October 31.

When the Olsons first opened Canteen 10 years ago, Duchess Bake Shop was already an anchor on 124th Street. The family expected more restaurants to pop up to the south, especially between 103rd to 107th Avenue. But it didn’t happen.

Edify’s (then Avenue’s) 124th Street restaurant map from 2013 helped us recall some memories. More than half of the independent restaurants from that list, including Glenora Bistro, Pure Kitchen and Cafe de Ville, are now either moved or closed.

“Restaurants have life spans, and it’s not usually 25 years,” says Frank. “It’s a tough business.”

Some of the difficulties the Olsons have encountered include continual inflation and a shrinking workforce. In addition, COVID affected food culture. Many people still prefer ordering via delivery to in-person dining. The Olsons changed their menus to accommodate the rise in delivery orders, but it’s been hard to get customers back into restaurants.

The Ols0ns now plan to open a new restaurant in Crestwood, in a place they have had their eyes on for several years. The new restaurant will be under a new brand. The operating hours will be longer, and the restaurant will serve coffee to-go in the morning, small plates for lunch and shareable plates for dinner.

“We’ve done it twice,” says Andrea, “and we’ll do it again.”

The Case of Blue Plate Diner

Located two blocks away, Blue Plate Diner, on Stony Plain Road, closed its doors on July 31.

Rima Devitt and John Williams started the restaurant 18 years ago on 104th Street. After losing their location to make way for the proposed Mackenzie Tower development, Devitt and Williams looked at a places downtown and on 124th street. They looked for places leasing for the same price as their old locations, but only found spaces with half of the size.

“We were running out of time,” recalls Devitt.

However, “many of the places we looked up several years ago are still empty now,” says Devitt. “Do they prefer the place being empty than renting it to someone who’d take good care of it?”

The years have been difficult for Devitt and Williams since they relocated to Stony Plain Road. The location wasn’t facing 124th Street, which wasn’t great for foot traffic. Devitt says the restaurant also lost part of its identity since moving off of 104th Street.

“A lot of people didn’t know we moved,” she says. “Then COVID hit, and that was devastating.”

Industry-wise, there has been a shift lately. Devitt sees people prefer ordering food via delivery services, and spend less time when they visit restaurants. Smaller restaurants that offer quick and easy meals have been more popular.

Devitt also mentioned the life span of restaurants. It’s not like she didn’t think of reopening Blue Plate Diner in another location, again.

“People get old, and the hustle has been tiring,” says Devitt. “Even if I had a million dollars right now, I’d have serious doubts about investing it into owning a restaurant.”