If you’ve ever been to the Business Link office in downtown Edmonton, you know it can be hard to find. Not because it’s hidden, but because it has a Bermuda Triangle-like quality about it. But, if you’ve been in our neighbourhood this summer, you might have noticed a business that actually did pop up then disappear.
I walk past the new Kelly Ramsay building every day on my way to work, and one day, a shop appeared in a formerly empty bay. Fascinated, I inquired, and it was a Maggie Walt Design pop-up. I remembered their former location which graced Jasper Avenue for ten years. Rather than closing up shop, they simply changed their business model. This got me thinking about the challenges and changes in retail space: why do some shops stay open forever, and other locations seem to have a new restaurant in them a few times a year?
I may not have answered those specific questions, but when I talked to Rob McGrath at Maggie Walt Design and then a handful of Business Link clients, it became obvious that the main challenge for small business is what makes them brilliant: independence. Each issue they met required a tailored solution. Here are excerpts from our chats.
A huge thank you to the entrepreneurs who spoke to me about their challenges!
To Stay or Not to Stay?
When I asked Maggie Walt Design about their choice of locations, I was surprised to find out that they’d been running their business mainly through temporary locations. Apart from their ten-year tenure on Jasper Ave & 112 St. from 2003–2013, they’ve run temporary sales that last anywhere from one evening to several months. And the venues?
Rob says, “Venues include a friends’ homes and fashion shows/sales in restaurants, nightclubs, gardening centres, theatres and art galleries. We’ve tried renting hotel conference rooms, participated in many fundraiser events, and even tried K-Days a couple years ago. We did the Calgary Folk Fest one year—unfortunately, it was the year of the great flood, and the vendor market was moved into an adjoining mall. When we had the store downtown, it had a 4000 ft2basement that we had fixed up, in which we hosted small weekend market “Hidden Gems—Body, Mind & Spirit” events that featured a variety of complimentary indie retailers and service providers that fit the theme.”
I then made the error of asking why they took a chance on downsizing from their popular location and was surprised to learn that they didn’t look at it as downsizing. Instead, it was a combination of business and personal decisions. Says Rob, “When we closed the Jasper Ave store in 2013, it wasn’t with a view to downsizing. New ownership of the building made staying an untenable prospect, [but the] loyal base of customers and friends that Maggie has had relationships with for decades here in Edmonton [is] a fact that could not be ignored. And so we find ourselves back in Edmonton but have been spending much of the winter in Asia, mostly Bali where our primary production partners are.”
Allison McLean, the founder of Carbon Environmental Boutique (now under new ownership), moved shop in the other direction: she took her smaller space to a bigger one. She chose to open Carbon on the 104th Street Promenade, which in 2009 was “the hippest place in Edmonton” and had a built-in customer base. Allison credits the weekly Saturday farmer’s market with bringing “wonderful folks into the store—people who loved shopping local and appreciated small manufacture and clean, quality products. Carbon and market-goers was a match made in heaven.” However, when her lease expired, she moved to a much larger location on High Street, which her research suggested would be a more proven location.
Oops. “The High Street location was lovely, though it had a whopping big challenge at the outset: a one year bridge construction took the City more than two years to complete! This was an unexpected hardship. However, there was a lovely side benefit to the 102 Avenue bridge debacle: “Girdergate” (which shut down most of the access to the shops on High Street for two years). It motivated me to serve on the Board of Directors for the 124th Street Business Improvement Area (BIA) as their Marketing Chair.” Community was a major part of her business model from the start, and when her community faced challenges, she felt empowered to take her experience and help them make positive change. Now she works as a business counsellor.
The business community in Hanna, a small town in southern Alberta, has faced challenges lately, related to the recent economic downturn. I wondered how a small business could stay afloat in such circumstances. I asked Lucie Bradfield of Homestyle Pies about the situation.
She’s closing up shop.
It’s not entirely due to the economy, though it was a motivating factor. “We settled in the Hand Hills area to farm because we liked the area. Farming is slow to pay for itself, so I decided that in order to get a livable price for our beef, we could turn them into a ready-made meal—pies. We decided to set up shop in Hanna because the price was right and the town friendly, and it is situated on the busy #9 highway.”
They had to travel a lot to deliver their pies to vendors and farmers’ markets, to gather supplies, and to make sales. While they could have cut that cost by moving to a city, they knew that wasn’t the life they wanted. “We chose the country life—so we are adapting. We didn’t inherit our land. We are farmers, and we have to make farming pay.” Instead, they’re using their entrepreneurial skills to build revenue with different approaches to value-added farming. In the meantime, they planned their exit from Homestyle Pies: “We designed it so that it can be relocated to a city where it can thrive with ease.”
Socks and the City
When Natalie Frederick realized that Edmonton’s sock scene was missing the cool but not-too-far-out niche (for example, I’m currently wearing socks with a mustachioed cat print), she knew she and her sister were the women for the job. Like their designs, Urban Drawer has taken the slightly less obvious retail road: an online shop.
Why did you decide to start up online, I wondered? Natalie’s reply made perfect sense to me: “I wanted our customers to be able to get our socks directly from us in a convenient and easy way. Having an online store makes our socks accessible to people across Alberta and Canada, and they can shop whenever they want! Our socks make great gifts, and to make them accessible to people who enjoy shopping in person, I decided to be a supplier to retailers that support local designers. That way customers can see the product without us operating a storefront.”
Small Business Shopping Guide
I was curious where people who owned small businesses liked to shop. I was looking for some personal recommendations, and if I could combine shopping into my job, well, then, I’d be one happy blogger. So, where’s your favourite place to shop?
Rob: We like to patronize locally owned businesses. Artisan bakers, local coffee roasters, increasingly vibrant restaurants, and independently owned/run retailers and service providers.
Allison: I just love niche stores with unique items like Sabrina Butterfly’s beautiful clothing store just east of Northlands, Ascendant Books, and Beck Antiques on 124th. For foodstuffs, I love Evoolution, Meuwly’s and other eclectic places that bring new, delicious things to my taste buds. For me, shopping is about exploring—I love supporting places that are going above and beyond to bring variety to Edmonton shelves.
Lucie: We shop where the price is right, and the quality is right, and where the service is friendly.
Natalie: Blush Lane Organics for food and when I am in Calgary, Purr Clothing store on 17th Ave!
A huge thank you to the businesses who spoke to me about their challenges!
Lucie Bradfield of Homestyle Pies
Homestyle Pies is Hanna, Alberta and the surrounding areas’ worst-kept secret. They’re featured on Take a Rural Road Trip, Alberta’s Special Areas website, and are available for purchase in the Calgary area through Spud.ca; in the Medicine Hat area through Nutters, Reg’s Homestyle Meats and Deli, and Premium Sausage in Seven Persons; in the Brooks area at the Vegetable trailer parked opposite Walmart in Brooks; in Big Valley at Granny’s Fudge Factory; and in Drumheller at NNNews. When Lucie Bradfield and her family moved to Alberta from South Africa, they were amazed to discover that meat pies were just not a thing in Alberta. She began making them for friends, and before long, found herself in business.
Natalie Frederick of Urban Drawer
Urban Drawer is an Edmonton based sock company inspired by the qualities of city life. They bring fun yet modern designs to life using quality materials. Rather than setting up a traditional retail shop, they have an online shop, sock of the month club, and supply their socks to small businesses in Alberta. Natalie founded Urban Drawer in June 2015 and operates the company alongside her sister, Vanessa, the graphic designer who creates beautifully patterned socks.
Rob McGrath of Maggie Walt Design
Maggie Walt has a passion for fashion—for vintage designs from the 1920s–1950s, for romantic prints, and for exotic textiles. Her focus on artisanship and craftsmanship make her styles unique. So what drove her to move from a retail location to a primarily online business? Maggie and partner Rob McGrath respond.
Allison McLean, former owner of Carbon Environmental Boutique
Allison opened Carbon Environmental Boutique in 2009 after retiring as a professional figure skating coach and choreographer. Carbon was Edmonton’s first retail store to sell only non-toxic, organic and locally-made products. Selecting products took a lot of passion—and a lot of research. Allison recently sold Carbon to new ownership. Although this chapter of her life is over, the Carbon legacy continues. Allison has moved on from running a business to offering business counselling services to assist other business owners in their ventures.