The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Multiple restaurant closures in downtown Calgary haven't scared brothers Cody and Jesse Willis, as they use their past experience to open new eateries and cocktail bars throughout the city.

Double Zero, Mabou Cheese + Bar, Divino, and Swine & Sow are all restaurants that have recently shut their doors. Many factors affect each closure, but Calgary’s tough economy is likely playing a role. However, while most people would be hesitant to start anything new, the brothers seem confident their new restaurants will succeed.

“I couldn't sit around on my hands waiting for the economy to go back up,” said Cody Willis, youngest of the two.

“And I feel that being a new business and being a new restaurant or opening a new restaurant in somewhat of a down economy or a recession is actually a bit better off because you're opening in a time when everybody wants to come check you out.”

This confidence comes from years of past work experience and already established restaurants in the city.

The Willis brothers were both born and raised in Calgary and took an interest in restaurants from a young age.

“It was just something for me that I picked up as a job when I was 14. I just used to think that, and I still do think, that restaurants are the coolest places,” said Cody. He continued to work in hospitality, and by the age of 19, he got a chance to bartend in London, England.

Jesse entered the industry a little later. “I started working at a liquor store when I was 19 just for a weekend job and to make some cash and get a small discount.”

“I couldn't sit around on my hands waiting for the economy to go back up” - Cody Willis said.

While working at the liquor store, Jesse and a friend of his decided to take an intro wine class to learn a little more about what they were selling. Both ended up really enjoying it. After a few more classes, Jesse began a position as a sales representative for a wine importer in Calgary. Finishing his diploma program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, he entered the International Sommelier Guild, a certified training school for wine enthusiasts.

From there, the brothers met up in Europe and toured around Italy and Germany to visit wineries.

“We went to this amazing wine show and I was just sort of blown away, and I got really fascinated with the wine side of things and kind of the culture,” said Cody.

After returning to Calgary from England, Cody also completed his sommelier diploma and worked in the wine side of the restaurant business. He had a goal of opening his own restaurant, but first he wanted to gain more culinary knowledge. So, at the age of 24, he entered Stratford Chefs School in Toronto.

Willis Brothers BodyThe brothers Jesse Willis (left) and Cody Willis (right), are both are restaurant entrepreneurs in Calgary, but they don’t consider themselves in competition. Instead, the two work on many events together and have both aimed to help Victoria Park and surrounding neighborhoods grow. Photo courtesy of Lana Rogers.

After Cody’s apprenticeship and finishing culinary school, he came back to Calgary to work in Model Milk’s kitchen. However, after completing two pop-up or ‘temporary restaurant’ events on his own time, one 13-course meal with wine pairings, and one casual taco pop-up, he found the latter to be what he really enjoyed.

His choice for tacos came from a small place in Toronto called Grand Electric. “I would go there every time I went to Toronto on the weekends. It was just something I enjoyed and then I didn't think I was necessarily going to do that. But I thought, you know, Calgary could use something like this, it's just super fun, high energy,” said Cody.

Cody continued to host the Sunday pop-ups with his feature tacos, and as they became more popular, people started to ask questions about whether a restaurant was going to open. He took this to heart and began looking at spaces, and in 2015, with the help of interested partners, he opened Native Tongues, an authentic Mexican restaurant.

Native Tongues takes its authenticity seriously, having a menu that boasts traditional taco culture and a design that takes you over the border.

“The more authentic part of it I guess came from lots of research into Mexico, Mexican cuisine and culture, traveling to Mexico, touring around, and just seeing some pretty amazing places and having some kind of experiences that I don't think a lot of people get to have that are that deep into the Mexican culture,” said Cody.

The two brothers worked together on the opening of Native Tongues in 2015, with Jesse contributing to its wine list.

But on top of collaborating with his brother, Jesse was also busy with his own projects. He had already opened his own specialty wine and liquor store, Vine Arts, and he was just opening a new specialty cocktail bar, Proof, with his business partner Jeff Jamieson.  

“Jeff and I had talked about at some point doing a cocktail bar. We saw the trend towards an interest in craft cocktails was just really booming everywhere else in the world, [primarily] in major cities, and it started to trickle into Calgary; we saw that in Vine Arts, where people wanted bitters and weird liqueurs and vermouths,” said Jesse.

Jesse believes Proof stands out from other cocktail bars opening in the city because of its lengthy cocktail list and style, which includes giant rolling ladders along the giant back bar, cozy leather seating and an intimate feel.

"We saw the trend towards an interest in craft cocktails was just really booming everywhere else in the world," Jesse said. 

Both Native Tongues and Proof have received recognition for their originality and the brothers are looking forward to the upcoming challenges.

Jesse’s next restaurant partnership, Donna Mac, is set to open in the coming months. Meanwhile, Cody has already opened Calcutta Cricket Club on 17th Avenue earlier in the summer and will be opening his newest, Two Penny Chinese, soon. 

Just as Cody focused on authenticity while starting Native Tongues with his research in Mexico, he’s done the same with Calcutta Cricket Club and Two Penny Chinese. 

“What fascinates me is trying to create an all-encompassing experience of a specific culture whether it be Indian or Mexican or Chinese,” said Cody.

However, as cultural appropriation is becoming more heavily debated, some may wonder if Cody’s restaurants are crossing a line. In May this year, a burrito shop in Portland Oregon closed after being accused of appropriating Mexican culture.

But Cody feels he has tried to stay as authentic and respectful as possible. The partners he’s worked with on Calcutta Cricket Club are from India and have been key to making sure the cultural elements behind the food, service and design are properly reflecting a metropolitan Calcutta experience.

“To a certain extent I'm kind of driving the boat, but there's other people involved in these businesses that are really also driving the cultural elements of it,” said Cody.

Overall, both brothers hope their establishments will help grow the surrounding neighborhoods.

“For us, a lot of it is just wanting to make what we love about Victoria Park and the character and the people that live here, it's a very amazing demographic and kind of clientele that live in the neighborhood,” said Cody.

While Calgary boasts the second highest unemployment rate in Canada, the brothers’ confidence may not be so far off. New data from ATB Financial shows that Albertans spent $766-million in restaurants this June, breaking the previous record by $3-million.  

“I think people have this general sense that because the economy is down all of a sudden these restaurants are closing,” said Cody. “But restaurants are a tricky business no matter what the economy is.”

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