Stephen Avenue is a popular hangout for Calgarians and tourists alike. Leslie Echino, who runs Blink Restaurant and Bar on Stephen Avenue, is prepping to open its sister eatery — Bar Annabelle — for the night.
“I got my first job bussing tables at 11 at an A&W working four days a week, four hours a day [and] made $5.25 an hour,” says Echino on what started her career in the restaurant industry.
Echino added Bar Annabelle next door to her first restaurant, Blink, in December 2017, transforming the 19th-century space into a bar focusing on wine and “lots of Japanese whiskey.”
Located just beyond a coral pink door, Bar Annabelle’s beautiful onyx bar, brass work and rose coloured theme provides an intimate dining experience.
With a small record player and a collection of vinyl to fill the space with music, the new business has quickly become a popular hangout.
“It’s something eye-opening [and] something very different. It’s kind of this little hole in the wall. I want people to come in here and just feel like their somewhere else,” Echino says.
While both restaurants have successful reputations, Echino always strives to continuously improve her businesses.
“You always have to stay current,” she says. “Once we rest on our laurels, and don't want to do anything new and exciting, that's when we become irrelevant.”
Now that the Alberta’s minimum wage has risen to $15 an hour, Echino — like most business owners — has to work even harder to keep her businesses afloat.
“I'm only as good as my staff,” she says. “Your staff is your most important tool — without them, I have nothing. So, I have to make sure I take care of all my employees, and that I think they, in turn, take care of my customers.”
However, she still has to change the way she staffs her businesses.
“I have to have less staff now, so when I used to have 30 employees I actually probably have 24 now … when somebody leaves, we tend to not rehire for that position.”
“Even hiring kids,” she adds. “I used to hire [teenagers] as hostesses and hosts. Now it's not happening so much. Now I want people with experience because it costs the same amount of money to hire them.”
In addition to the minimum wage going up, the whole supply chain is getting more expensive.
“Beef has gone up 40 percent in last three years and we're moving a lot of our facilities out of province,” says Echino.
So it's not just me as one little owner/operator,” she continues. “I can absorb a lot of those costs. You know we do not pass them along to the customer. We do not increase our prices.”
She’s had to be creative in how to keep her costs at the same level.
“Five years ago we would serve tenderloin for $38-39,” she explains. “Now, if I was putting that on the menu, it would cost 55-56 dollars, which is utterly insane to be putting that price on my menu. So, we have to go to different cuts.”
With that in mind, she still believes in the wage increase but suggests there be alternative solutions.
“Minimum wage should go up. I know that's a fair thing. We all want to be able to live in this society. Sometimes I think it's just we rush into these things without really putting the thought into the repercussions,” she explains. “We have seriously some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. By just randomly putting minimum wage up doesn't make that go away.”
“We think [about] the quick fixes,” she says. “But, I don't think any of us know what the answer is. I've always paid a fair wage to all my staff, but sometimes it's hard to look even at an entry-level position.
“Do they deserve to get paid the same amount as somebody that has been there for a long time or somebody that's experienced?”
To solve this, she suggests that Alberta create a “youth wage.”
“[It] gives some incentive to hire young people that are still in school because now I think [teenagers] are going to find a really difficult time going into the workforce,” she says. “A lot of people are shying away from hiring inexperienced young people because there are a lot more people looking for those jobs now.
“You can hire somebody that's 35 and experienced for that same pay. It's detrimental for the youth,” she says.
Annie MacInnes, executive director of the Kensington Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ), emphasizes the importance of shopping local in order to help the business community.
It's a much more sustainable way to shop. The small inner-city business districts are kind of like the jewels of the city,” MacInnes says.
“Support your local businesses. They are your parents, and your parents' friends, and your neighbours and the people from down the street. They're the ones that run these businesses and work in these businesses.”
To add to the effects of wage increases, offices and restaurants have also been impacted by the last recession. Downtown offices continue to see high vacancy rates, and restaurants are closing down all around the city.
“It's unbelievably quiet downtown,” says Echino. “I'm looking at a "For Lease" sign across the street, which is sad. I had three restaurants around me close this year on the same block and that is really tough. People think, ‘Oh, that's better for me as a business person,’ [but] it's not. You want more like-minded businesses around you because it draws more people to come visit.”
Zoe Addington, director of policy and government relations at the Calgary Chamber, elaborates on the effects of office vacancies on the business community.
“As the vacancy rate has grown ... their value has dropped. When one area drops in value like downtown has, if the city wants to bring in the same amount of money, it means they're gonna have to increase the tax rate on the rest of the business community. Everybody else's rate goes up.”
But Echino says she isn’t certain as to how to completely resolve this problem for local businesses and offices.
“Costs of doing business aren't going down, my rent isn’t going down [and] property taxes keep going up,” Echino says. “[It] doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of change happening in the city. So, you know, whether it’s speaking to our local government officials and talking to them, I don't really know. I wish I had the answer because then I'd be full all day every day.”
Despite many struggles, Echino’s businesses have continues to thrive, and credits her success to her staff, and constantly moving forward.
“It’s just keeping your nose down, keeping your costs low and just keep doing a better and better job all the time,” she remarks. “It's a waiting game and just seeing what's going to happen.”
- By Solaya Huang