How some Calgary food innovators made the most of the Pandemic
By Gwendolyn Richards
Reece Southern is busily working behind the marble bar that stretches nearly the length of the room. On any given night, this would be a typical sight at Proof, the popular cocktail bar in Victoria Park.
Except it’s mid-afternoon. And the tables where patrons would normally sit to sip the bar’s signature drinks have all been pushed to the side and piled up with
cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with bottles of booze, special syrups and Fifth and Vermouth barware.
As an unprecedented pandemic has forced restaurants and bars to close their doors in the name of public safety, chefs, bartenders, restaurateurs and business owners have pushed to find ways to stay open in unique ways.
For Proof, it means offering their signature cocktails, like Fire in the Pharmacy (scotch, mezcal and a housemade ginger-lemon syrup) or Ol’ Smokey’s Luau (rum, citrus and smoked pineapple) in a kit that allows enthusiasts to experience the bar at home.
“If any positive comes out of this mess, it’s that it’s forced us to think creatively,” says Jeff Jamieson, the co-owner of Proof, Vine Arts and Donna Mac with partner Jesse Willis.
Cocktail kits — along with the opportunity to buy individual bottles of liquor or glasses and barware from their other business, Fifth and Vermouth — were an obvious move, he says. And one that has allowed them to hire back some staff, including general manager Erin Miller — and given bar manager Southern an opportunity to push himself in new ways.
Jamieson dismisses any criticism or concern he’s heard that the cocktail boxes will have a chilling effect on business when Proof is able to safely reopen.
“More people drinking cocktails is ultimately better for Proof because they’ll understand this takes effort to make well,” he says. “Any greater appreciation for the craft is welcome.”
Kits have proven a popular — and welcomed — pivot for a number of restaurants, including Deane House with its menus that change each week, Cassis Bistro and Cibo on 17th Avenue, which offers DIY pasta and pizza kits, along with take-and-bake pastries and drinks.
Offering a cook-at-home option has been an overwhelming success, to the point of technical issues, for ramen joint Shiki Menya.
Even several weeks into the pandemic noodle enthusiasts still scrambled to get their hands on Shiki’s chili goma packages, complete with two servings of soup base, noodles and spicy minced pork. When orders are opened — through both Shiki Menya and Bridgeland Market — they sell out within mere minutes and have crashed both spots’ websites multiple times.
“It’s been crazy,” says owner Koki Aihara of the ramen heads trying to get one of the 250 ramen kits offered each week. “If people are stoked getting a kit, that’s satisfying for us.”
The idea of offering some of the signature soup to cook at home had been percolating for Aihara for months before the pandemic. Ramen, which needs to be eaten piping hot right from the stove, isn’t ideal as a delivery item. Allowing people to cook it at home would solve any issues of cold food and mushy noodles.
Covid-19 forced his hand.
Rather than relying on third-party delivery services — with their exorbitant fees — Shiki Menya is doing their own driving,
along with pick up at Bridgeland Market.
“It’s a good decision because we could hire back our staff as drivers. Our money is staying with our Shiki family,” says Aihara.
Part of the success of the ramen kits also rests with the community approach Yousef Traya, owner of Bridgeland Market, has taken. As an essential service, the neighbourhood store has remained open and Traya has given shelf space to local restaurants, including Shiki Menya and Zipang Sushi.
“When I looked at the situation, it was a no brainer,” he says. “It was the easiest thing to do.”
Helping Aihara through ramen kit pickups did create some hiccups — people trying to get their hands on them kept crashing Bridgeland Market’s website and some even resorted to sending direct messages to Traya on his personal social media accounts in the hope of securing some chili goma.
“Ramen heads are worse than sneaker heads,” Traya says with a laugh. “I’ve got tickets to Wutang easier than people trying to get ramen.”
Downtown, Alforno Bakery and Café has pivoted to become a small market for its area.
When it reopened a few weeks after physical distancing measures were implemented, the café that is typically busy with the downtown lunch crowd transformed their upper seating area to an ad hoc grocery and liquor store. Along with dried pasta, some produce and pantry items, patrons can pick up wine and hard liquor along with bread and a caffeinated drink.
While easing physical distancing measures will ultimately see most spots return to business as usual, some pandemic pivots ill be permanent.
Aihara says they will continue offering ramen kits for sale even after Shiki Menya is back open. Proof plans to bottle and sell their cocktail syrups in Vine Arts and other stores, with an aim of ultimately getting wider distribution.
What Traya hopes will continue is the support small businesses have seen in the wake of Covid-19.
“When we come back, we need to put our dollars where it matters, local businesses and restaurants — the small ones, the independents,” he says.
“Don’t take them for granted.”
- Some of the takeout products mentioned in this article may no longer
be available as restaurants re-open for dine-in service.