BY GRAHAM HICKS
All things must pass.
The best restaurants start as exciting culinary adventures. They flourish, lasting much longer than the trendy, all-flash-no-substance eateries.
But, eventually, the founders tire. Other restaurants catch up. Competition increases.
The biggest factor will always be the local economy. When it morphs – as Edmonton has done – from buoyancy to stubborn stagnancy, customers rein in their former free-spending ways.
All of the above would have played into the unexpected shutdown of Edmonton’s long-acclaimed Hardware Grill last month. But the biggest culprit, as detailed below, was debt.
The Hardware Grill closure sent shock waves through the city’s hospitality sector.
This wasn’t just any restaurant. For 23 years, owners Larry and Melinda Stewart’s pride and joy was considered the best restaurant in Edmonton, the standard-bearer for prairie regional cuisine. At one time or another, the Hardware Grill won every national Canadian restaurant award to be had.
Young chefs lined up to work at the Hardware Grill – knowing, under Stewart’s demanding leadership, it was the best training to be had. The city’s top servers worked there, and rarely left.
The Hardware Grill opened in 1996, when the downtown economy was shaky at best. The Stewarts and then-partners Brad and Leanne Smoliak (the two men were top chefs, their spouses hospitality professionals) took on enormous risk, betting that Edmonton was ready for a top-end restaurant. Stewart left an executive position at Earl’s Tin Palace, developing menu items for the chain.
To spur development in The Quarters district, the City of Edmonton had purchased and renovated the W.W. Arcade Hardware store at Jasper Avenue and 97 Street. The renovation was classy, but it still bordered the seedier side of the downtown.
The bet by the Stewarts and Smoliaks, to open a top-end restaurant in the old hardware store worked. The oilsands boom fattened diners’ wallets. The only downtown fine-dining competition for the Grill in the mid-‘90s was the Mac’s Harvest Room, the Westin Carvery and the Chateau Lacombe’s La Ronde.
So what happened? Why, 23 years later, the unexpected closure?
The economy, the competition, changing tastes all happened … as did the simple passage of time.
But there’s no need to speculate. After my return from a September-long holiday, Larry accepted my invitation to lay out his version of events for the Weekly Dish.
The demise of the Hardware Grill he attributes to multiple indirect factors.
The city’s promise of major re-development in The Quarters never happened. Customers were frustrated with downtown vehicular access, with non-stop road closures and a huge jump in street parking costs. The ND government’s bump-up of the minimum wage, to $15 an hour, added more costs when revenue was stagnant at best.
Stewart does not, however, blame the closure on rising competition or the stagnant economy. While not as free-spending as in boom years, the restaurant’s customer base remained loyal, he says. Nor did his and Melinda’s commitment to the Hardware Grill ever slip. “I was always, every night, the last guy to leave,” he says.
No, it wasn’t those not-so-minor aggravations.
Stewart is blunt. Snowballing debt that started from another venture, he says, brought down the Hardware Grill.
In 2013, the Stewarts opened a second restaurant, Tavern 1903, close by the Hardware Grill, directly across from the Edmonton Convention Centre in the newly built re-creation of the Alberta Hotel.
The casual Tavern 1903 was a hit off the bat. But Stewart and his landlord never agreed on the repayment schedule of a tenant improvement loan, leading to an unexpected eviction and a major financial setback to what in truth is a relatively small but sophisticated mom ‘n’ pop operation.
In short, Stewart says, The Hardware Grill – especially in the lean years since 2016 – could not generate enough capital to service additional debt precipitated by the end of Tavern 1903.
He deeply regrets leaving suppliers with unpaid bills, including smaller ones thrown into financial straits close to those of the Hardware Grill itself.
Staff were equally shocked by the abrupt and unexpected shutdown. Many had worked at the Hardware Grill for decades.
“We were hoping for an infusion of capital to keep going,” says Larry. “When a potential new partnership fell through, that was the end.”
“Please use your story to salute the Hardware Grill staff,” says Larry. “They were family to Melinda and me, as fine a group of hospitality professionals as you’ll find anywhere. The kitchen alumni were second to none. Every day was rich and rewarding.”
Thank you, Larry and Melinda, for all you have done to improve culinary standards in Edmonton.
By the way, restaurateurs, Larry is looking for a job. A better culinarian you will not find.