Calgary’s 1st Suburban Food Hall Thrives as Small-Business Incubator [Photos]

Calgary’s first food hall concept has opened in quite a unique location compared to other similar establishments across the country.

Most food halls are located in urban, dense environments – downtown or inner-city neighbourhoods.

But the Avenida Food Hall & Fresh Market has found a home in suburbia and it’s thriving.

The food hall, which officially opened December 15, 2018, has about 22,500 square feet with 42 different vendors.

“One of the vendors has 32 separate vendors within. It’s called The Mercantile and it’s a replication of an old-time general store. It’s a bit of an incubator to help start-ups and people just finding their way in the market business and hopefully what it does is produce new, longer term vendors as time goes on,” said Ken Aylesworth, General Manager of Avenida, adding that in total, there’s 23 food establishments.

“The market business in Calgary is changing as it is everywhere. The abundance of pop-up markets as we know them spring, summer, fall markets has grown exponentially . . . There is a desire by the Calgary community to have year-round markets as a destination – a place to go and enjoy unique products and the relationships you build.

“We also look at what’s happening in North America which of course led us right back to Europe and because of the lifestyle they survive off of the markets and food halls where they go quite frankly almost on a daily basis to get product or to consume and meet and gather.”

Avenida is a mixed-use retail space providing customers with a wide variety of unique dining concepts, fresh local produce and meats, and a wealth of diverse artisanal goods.

The local businesses come in all shapes and sizes from small start-ups to established entrepreneurs opening their next venture. In addition to providing these businesses with a lower cost alternative to opening a full sized brick and mortar location of their own, the Food Hall also operates as a business incubator, providing a safe space for businesses to gain their footing and begin to grow.

Businesses like Wild Rhubarb and Buck owned by Ben Toews, who also operates Country Cousins Bistro in the small community of Linden, Alberta.

“We do Prairie comfort food,” he said. “I grew up in a small Mennonite town and sort of have this influence of insanely delicious but simple original foods . . . Life was about food. Everything centred around food. So we do pie, preserves, soup, smoked brisket. Peanut butter pie is probably our most famous item on the menu.”

This concept was started particularly for the Avenida Food Hall. It was an opportunity to start in a small way in the big city. He wanted to start the new concept in Calgary to see if this is a model that can work and be repeated. Toews said he liked the concept of being in a food hall because it’s a safe way to start small for his new business. And he said the response so far has been amazing.

“Most markets in most food halls are very much urban,” said Aylesworth. “It’s all been based on the reclamation of old warehouses etcetera in the downtown core. For the most part in places like San Francisco and Seattle and all those places it’s worked amazingly well. When we did all of our studies around demographics in the Avenida area it was really apparent that we had a really solid, solid and dense group of customers that were middle to above economic status. Lots of younger folks that had grown up in those areas and now were returning to own homes in their old neighbourhoods and having kids,” said Aylesworth.

“Quite honestly we weren’t entirely sure how the retirement community might take to us and they’ve been absolutely amazing supporting us. They’re coming. Although their per bag purchase is not large, they’re the ones that literally come almost on a daily basis and they’re buying fresh produce and fresh proteins. Having a coffee and a piece of pie or taking stuff with them. They’re some of our very best customers because they really are using it very much like a European market. There is a real cross-section of ethnicity too.”

Travis Callaway, President of Avenida Food Hall and Managing Director of Private Equity at Strategic Group, said Strategic Group is an owner of the real estate and its mantra as an organization is “creating value others can’t by seeing what others don’t.”

“It’s a fancy way of saying that we try to be unconventional and look for creative solutions when it comes to real estate problems. We took a space that had been built to basically house a SportChek for a long and then had been a real estate brokerage office. We looked at that and tried to think outside the box and being creative came up with the idea of a farmers’ market or food hall concept. The original idea was to make creative use of space, that was built for something else, but repurpose it to do something that we think was sorely needed in that part of the city and in that community,” he said.

“The vast majority of food halls in mostly larger cities like Toronto, New York, Montreal, Miami, San Francisco and obviously throughout Europe the food halls would be very centre city. So gentrified areas or downtown areas . . . When we did our research we found that all the things you look for in a food hall it’s compelling people to come out and spend their disposable income to eat as opposed to staying at home or whatever the case may be. The demographics in the area are pretty supportive of that. It’s a very suburban area and there’s not a lot to do. We just felt we were able to offer something that is going to give people that have a decent amount of money to spend, somewhere to spend their money that’s unique, creative and there’s nothing else like it remotely close to them.”

Callaway said the food hall also gives smaller and lesser known brands an opportunity to establish themselves and flourish.

“There will be no Jugo Juice or Booster Juice or A&W at Avenida Food Hall & Fresh Market. That is the opposite of what we’re going for. We want to offer and we have offered almost explicitly things that you can literally get nowhere else,” he said.

“Now a couple of vendors at Avenida do have other locations. A select few. The vast majority of the people that we have this is the only place that you can go and get their cuisine or whatever the case may be. Part of the rationale for that, you get to not just order your food and interact with people preparing the food but you’re actually there with the people who operate the business and have the idea and inspiration behind the cuisine in the first place. That we think is part of the experience about this. You just don’t get that if you go to a food court or anywhere else.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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