The Edmonton Oilers home opener against the Calgary Flames last week drew cheers and more than a few sighs of relief from the more than 18,000 fans that filled the new downtown arena.
The team won their first game of the season on home ice since 2011, beat their provincial rivals 5-3 and new captain Connor McDavid scored two goals and contributed one assist.
But the inaugural season is sparking excitement of another kind among retailers, real estate brokers and restaurateurs of the area. The arena, a decade in the making, has breathed new life into an otherwise stagnant downtown core – replacing derelict buildings, gravel pits and empty parking lots with an 819,200 square-foot world-class sports and entertainment venue, a public plaza and so much more.
Since plans were announced in 2013 more than $5-billion worth of office buildings, condos and other developments have cropped up north of the Saskatchewan River.
At least two who were keen to get in on the action have St. Albert roots: Bundok, a new casual fine-dining eatery located on the ground level of the Fox Tower; and Apollo Originals, a recently relocated street-wear brand now operating out of the historic Mercer Warehouse.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, chef Ryan Hotchkiss is weeks away from opening his first restaurant, Bundok, amidst the hustle and bustle of 104 Street.
“I am fairly nervous. I think you’d be crazy not to be nervous, but I’m excited,” he said. “Hopefully people enjoy what I put out.”
Born and raised in St. Albert, chef Ryan Hotchkiss first pursued a career as a professional snowboarder in Whistler, B.C., where he washed dishes (and eventually moved onto the line) at an Indian restaurant to pay for his lift tickets.
Since moving back to the Edmonton region eight years ago, the NAIT-trained chef has worked at some of the city’s best eateries, including The Sugarbowl, Sage and Jack’s Grill, where he served as head chef until it closed in 2013. Most recently he has cooked for Bar Bricco and Red Star.
His 36-seat eatery, Bundok, will serve a bistro-type menu and feature an open kitchen. The setting will be casual and inviting, but the food will be elevated.
Hotchkiss wants his patrons to rethink the concept of a Canadian restaurant.
“Some people think its just burgers, or just poutine, but it doesn’t have to be that at all,” he said. “Basically, it’s just me using my experiences and the way I’ve interacted with ingredients through my life. Hopefully people can realize that there are certain styles of restaurants, but for the most part it’s the chef and the food that will separate them the most.”
Hotchkiss, who has wanted to open his own restaurant since completing his apprenticeship in 2012, says 104 Street has always been on his radar.
“It’s my favourite street in the city for sure,” he said. “It feels like the epicentre. I really like that.”
Brad McNamara and Mattie Gordon-MacDonald’s move to the heart of Oilers nation was less deliberate.
Up until a month ago, the pair was selling their street-wear brand, Apollo Originals, out of Athlete’s Nation in St. Albert, where McNamara works as head strength and conditioning coach for Sport Performance Training.
It started out as a fun hobby for the two best friends from Nova Scotia. Yet it quickly gained traction through word of mouth and pop-up events at locations as diverse as Lululemon, a tattoo convention and The Billiards Club.
“That was kind of us – we were a pop-up store,” said McNamara.
It was through one such event at Mercer Tavern that the two discovered what is called the Vacancy Hall – the unpolished-but-in-a-cool-way lower level of the historic Mercer Warehouse.
“As soon as this opportunity arose, it was definitely the way to go,” said Gordon-MacDonald. “This whole district, once it’s done, will be the prime time real estate in Edmonton.”
The concrete-and-exposed-pipe hall, which literally sits across from new arena, gives them a home base (they also did the whole selling T-shirts out of their car thing), not to mention access to tens of thousands of hockey fans, who start streaming into the downtown area around 5 p.m. even in the pre-season.
McNamara and Gordon-MacDonald plan to sell their signature astronaut-clad apparel on the weekends and game nights. They have set up their space with couches and a turntable to create a casual fun atmosphere.
Hotchkiss is also hoping to take advantage of the home crowd.
“It’s either going to be so busy that that’s your stress or you’re going to have to work for your customers and try to get people in the door,” he said.