Old Standards

The restaurant business is the most fickle of them all. So why have these eateries endured?

Normand Campbell, owner of Normand’s, sits down with a game plate of elk, bison, wild-boar bacon and vegetables.

Photography by Terri Belley

When Hans Kuhnel opened The Crperie in 1976, the city had a population of 461,000; it would be another two years until the Oilers acquired a kid named Wayne Gretzky. And Edmonton’s haute cuisine consisted mainly of steak and pizza. Thirty-seven years and hundreds of thousands of crpes later, the candles are still lit every night in the downtown basement restaurant on 103rd Street. And the city has nearly doubled in size. The Great One’s glory years are just a memory, but the Crperie remains basically the same.

It is a rarity: Just one of a handful of local independent restaurants that have lasted for decades. Nobody disputes that it is a tough business with heavy competition for both customers and dedicated staff. Not to mention there’s the long, exhausting hours, a fickle dining public and constant revenue uncertainty.

It’s such a universal problem across North America that The Food Network Canada devotes a program, Restaurant Takeover, to saving struggling restaurants. Vancouver restaurant consultant, Richard Floody, estimates that more than 80 per cent fail in the first two years, and even past Canada’s Top Chef champ, Dale MacKay, recently suffered the failure of two restaurants.

There’s little wonder why most don’t survive in the long run. The real question is: how do some restaurants manage to keep their doors open for so long?

Kuhnel has owned as many as four different restaurants, three of which he sold (and later shut down) during the ’90s, until he reached victory with The Crperie, leaving him in a unique position to comment on the secret to long-term success. He blames the National Energy Program for the demise of high-end Walden’s, parking problems and competition from suburban rib joints for shutting down Bones and he says Avanti might have been ahead of its time with its open-kitchen concept.

But The Crperie keeps rolling along.

Kuhnel feels he’s finally found the right combination. First of all, “you don’t break the bank by coming here” and a couple can enjoy a good dinner, including wine, for under $100.

He’s a stickler about consistency, so the quality of food served on Saturday is the same as it is on Tuesday. Even more important, it is not a “cookie-cutter restaurant,” he says.

“There’s a romantic feel to the restaurant. In our marketing we have emphasized that.”

Milan and Sharka Svajgr, siblings and co-owners of Bistro Praha, eat the classic Wiener schnitzel, one of the items that’s been on the menu for three decades.

Bistro Praha opened a year later, in 1977. While Daniel Schultz, co-owner and president, has only been involved with the downtown cafe for three years, his wife, fellow owner Sharka Svajgr, has served dishes like the classic Wiener schnitzel for 26 years.

Consistency is also important to the bistro. “If you’ve got a good formula, don’t change it,” Schultz says. “The fried cheese is the same as it was when it was put on the menu 35 years ago.”

When the late Frantisek Cikanek, an immigrant from then-Czechoslovakia, started the restaurant, Edmonton hadn’t seen anything like it. Not just the European menu, but the ambience, complete with classical music and always prompt European-style service.

It was shut down for nearly two years after the fire in 2009 on Rice Howard Way but, despite the move to 101st Street, everything is exactly the same, from the antique tables to the huge mural of the Swiss Alps, an exact replica of the original.

And the staff from the kitchen and the front end came back after the long interruption, guaranteeing that the quick, professional service would continue.

Schultz’s advice, especially in an era when customer reviews on websites such as Urban Spoon can affect your reputation: “If you’ve had a really good first year, don’t screw it up and change things.”

But change is exactly what Jodh Singh did seven years ago when he bought Packrat Louie, an Old Strathcona fixture since 1991. A former partner in Ric’s Grill, Singh upped both the wine list and the menu, to which he introduced new elements such as venison and ahi tuna. 

And unlike many restaurants in the Whyte Avenue area, most of his staff have been there for over five years, and know the regulars by name. “When it comes to the food, you have to keep it fresh, but when it comes to the staff you want it to be as ‘consistent’ as can be.”

Normand Campbell, whose Normand’s restaurant has lasted for 24 years, says the first two years can be perilous. Inadequate financing can cause failure, especially if the restaurant doesn’t catch on right away. Partnerships can also dissolve if the money doesn’t flow quickly enough, or a partner might decide to get out after finding out how much work it is to run a restaurant.

Campbell considers himself lucky that his executive chef, Cui Kouch, has been around Normand’s almost as long as the restaurant, starting as a dishwasher and then working his way up.

“We don’t cut corners. A lot of restaurants cut their portions and raise their prices, and people notice.”

You can’t get greedy, but must use common sense, which he defines as “genius dressed in working clothes.” That means keeping a close eye on what’s popular, but also being flexible enough to adjust to new trends. After Normand’s “Wild Game” fall promotion proved to be successful, he added a wild game special to the menu.

“It’s been pretty good for me, but I still have to work at it every day,” says Campbell, who has logged many years of 60-hour weeks. “You can’t rest on your laurels.

Devil is in the details

Perry Michetti, associate dean at NAIT’s school of hospitality and culinary arts, has seen a number of his graduates start restaurants with varying degrees of success.

“It’s a fairly complex recipe, no pun intended, but it isn’t really complicated if you learn how to do it,” Michetti says. “What we teach our students here is that the devil is in the details.”

First, make sure you have a good accountant, he says. A lot of chefs are good in the kitchen, but don’t have good heads for business, and in a business with a small profit margin, proper control measures and careful surveillance over inventory can make all the difference.

Customer service – the art of making people feel important – is vital, and not easy to do day after day. You never know who’s in your room, and bad service to the wrong folks can have major repercussions, he says.

But above all, “You still need to know what to cook for the customers. There are chefs who are consistently bad at knowing what to cook. They keep making things that don’t sell just because they like cooking them.”

We’d all be in the restaurant business if there was an obvious formula to success. Sometimes initial success means finding a niche nobody else is filling, whether it’s crepes or goulash. Or, creating an ambience that catches on and is trendy.

But there’s a common thread in how these restaurateurs keep going, and that’s continuing to work as hard as they did in the beginning. In other words, you can’t afford to slack off in the kitchen.

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