Nestled between the Strathcona Hotel and the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market, hidden for several months behind a sign that read "The Corner is Complete", sits a progressive mashup of turn-of-the century decadence and Latin-inspired street art.
The final installment in local restaurateur and filmmaker Mike Maxxis’ trifecta, The Holy Roller is modelled after a New York City mid-century hotel that fell into disrepair, was overrun by gangs, and was subsequently gentrified.
Like the other two establishments in his portfolio – Mexican-American tequila bar, El Cortez and Southern-inspired Have Mercy – Maxxis created an elaborate past for his latest 200-seat eatery, which celebrated its grand opening on Friday, Oct. 20.
“With mass gentrification of almost every American city, you go to all these unbelievable spaces that are now reclaimed and cool restaurants or galleries or offices,” Maxxis explains. “But the last thing that they were was probably something that was very unsafe to visit.”
Another, more interesting similarity, however, lies in the fact that all three restaurants occupy the same historic Crawford Block on Gateway Boulevard – separated only by gravitypope’s clothing shop.
While opening restaurants in close proximity to each other is a tactic used by many larger chains, Susan Lauder, a hospitality instructor at NAIT, says it’s less common for small, independent hospitality groups because they don't have access the same level of marketing or financing, and often choose locations based on affordability. Yet, as of next week, Edmonton will count three such trios.
One street down from Holy Roller, at the corner of 83 Avenue and 104 Street, Saylish Haas and her partners are also preparing for the grand opening of their newest establishment – the adeptly named Pip.
And of course, there’s Daniel Costa’s triple threat.
In 2014, high off the success of his first restaurant, Corso 32, Costa decided to open two new Italian concepts within the same Jasper Avenue building.
The NAIT-trained chef always dreamt of owning a wine and aperitivi bar, and had been considering opening Bar Bricco in the basement of his flagship restaurant, when the first of two spaces in the same building became available.
“It just happened to work out perfectly,” says Costa. “The basement logistics were just not happening.”
Then, a few months later, the second space opened up. Given the positive relationship he had with the landlord, Costa jumped at the opportunity to open Uccellino – a modern trattoria that serves the simple food he grew up eating and cooking.
“I wasn't comfortable yet to open up anything that was more than 500 metres away,” he explains. “I'm a little bit of a micro-manager; I like to be tasting all of the food.”
His partners were skeptical. Uccellino had double the capacity of the other two eateries combined, and they wondered how three Italian restaurants would fare side by side.
But Costa was confident in the distinctiveness of the concepts, and Corso was still enjoying a significant wait list. His partners conceded.
“I don't think that it's as crazy of an idea as most people think it is. It actually makes a lot of sense,” he says. “The quality of your restaurant stays high because the owner or managers are present all the time. They're able to bounce from one location to the next. I actually think that it's a very smart way of opening restaurants.”
Maxxis agrees. He credits the growth of his fledging hospitality company, Merchant Hospitality, to the proximity of his restaurants.
“It’s really helped to have the places close to each other; we’re not stretched too thin, and having to waste time travelling all over the place,” he says.
Unlike Costa, the filmmaker didn’t have dreams of opening a second concept. He signed the lease on Have Mercy’s second floor (above El Cortez) location because he wanted to control the building.
“The business that was up there before was kind of conflicting with our demographic. It was a rave club, so you'd have the bass thumping through the ceiling, and a different crowd coming through,” says Maxxis.
The restaurateur hoped that a second premium food and drink establishment would help clean up a previously dodgy corner and contribute to the overall revitalization of Old Strathcona.
Community building was also at the heart of Haas’ decision to open MEAT in 2014. As was controlling the competition.
“Although it’s appealing to be downtown with the buzz and the excitement that’s there right now,” says Hass, “I think our heart is here. As it stands, we’re really excited to have three [restaurants] here and keep building on the Old Strathcona area.”
According to Lauder, one of the biggest challenges with proximity is ensuring the concepts are different enough to avoid cannibalization, which she defines as eating into your own business.
But when the space next to The Next Act became available, Haas thought it would be best to compete with themselves than another restaurant. She and partners, Nathan McLaughlin and Michael Rebalkin, put a lot of thought into how to differentiate their second concept, while still maintaining a consistent brand.
“Something that we have been very conscientious about is the fact that they're different businesses, but you feel comfortable going to any of them,” says Haas. “That is what we hope to achieve with Pip as well.”
In keeping with the tradition of simple food done well, the tiny wine and cocktail bar will serve premium comfort food, such as roast chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, as well as all-day brunch.
Lauder compares the tactic used by these three restaurant owners, as well as others such as Farrow and Three Boars, The Common and Grandin Fish ‘N’ Chips, and Sabor and Bodega, to one she’s noticed in the hotel industry. To expand its reach, the Hilton no longer caters only to high-end clients. It also offers mid-level and express options.
“I think maybe that’s what they’re doing. They’re appealing to a slightly broader market by having three locations that do something slightly different. It’s smart,” she says.
Despite its cinematographic interior, The Holy Roller is also quite unique in its offerings, serving a continental menu of Detroit-style pizza, poke bowls and pintxos – shareable, Basque-inspired snacks.
The lounge, which resembles a hotel lobby, serves coffee from Ace Coffee Roasters, classic cocktails, wine, chocolate, and light fare, such as soups, salads and paninis.
“We want to keep elevating this district,” says Maxxis.
The opening of Pip has been delayed from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.