Canteen and Red Ox Inn are a family affair

Crystal Carwin Lee (@crystalcarwin) loves food, so she is working her way through The Tomato’s 2013 to 2015 lists of best places to eat or drink in Edmonton. Restaurant profiles will be posted on TLG, and you can find her review of Canteen on her own blog. 

Frank and Andrea Olson first met in 1990, forging a relationship that would see them through the purchase of the Red Ox Inn in 1995, marriage, the raising of three children currently between the ages of 9 and 14, as well as the opening of their latest success, Canteen.

Canteen Collage
Canteen’s interior, place settings and beautifully plated food. Photos: Crystal Carwin Lee

It was with the help of their parents that they were able to buy Red Ox Inn, which went on sale while Andrea was already working at the restaurant. Frank, who had been studying engineering and architecture — combining his knowledge to build metal sculptures — transferred his skills towards creating beautiful food instead. Andrea tells me that Frank read everything he could get his hands on (and still does) when it comes to food. They would also close the restaurant for three weeks every summer in order to find out about the culinary happenings in other cities.

As Andrea describes it, Red Ox Inn is serious food — fine dining — in a casual room. On the other hand, Canteen, opened in December 2013, has the same commitment to food (named on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best in 2013 and 2014), but the menu is approached in a more relaxed way. Their menu is based on what the kitchen finds interesting and what the chefs enjoy eating. Andrea says that it’s important to keep their staff engaged because they have a lot of talent, so she and Frank listen to what they have to say and take it from there, making it more collaborative.

For the Olsons, the restaurants, especially Canteen, have also become a family affair. Canteen, located on 124 Street, is situated right in the neighbourhood they live in, meaning their children often go to work with them; all three enjoy spending time helping out when they can.

That type of involvement by all is a reflection of the family’s character. For them, it’s about forging good relationships wherever they are. Whether it be in the Westmount neighbourhood where they live or with the numerous other local and independent businesses on 124 Street, they want to be part of those communities. Through Canteen, when it comes to possible avenues for giving back, they have seen a huge variety of requests. However, closest to their heart is the Edmonton Food Bank; it’s the cause they have decided to put 99 per cent of their efforts behind because it fits with their business and, unfortunately, the need is always there.

After 20 years working together in the restaurant industry, Frank and Andrea say they have learned that there is a very informal network of people they can call on, if they ever find themselves in need. That network doesn’t stop at immediate family either, but rather extends to include friends within the Edmonton food and restaurant community. Andrea says that they have always felt supported by other restaurateurs and industry staff, citing the many familiar faces from all of their favourite kitchens citywide that came by when Canteen first opened.

Part of that support comes from Frank and Andrea’s reputation for bringing great food to the table, and I think the other reason is, as Andrea puts it, because there’s an audience for just about anything in Edmonton; this is the city to pursue your own business because there’s room to execute your ideas here and there is so much opportunity.

This is exactly what this duo has done. They seized the occasion and took chances when they felt they were ready (Red Ox Inn was open for 10 years before they even contemplated a second restaurant), and, so far, it seems to have paid off.

The secret to their success? It may lie in their philosophy: treat others how you would like to be treated. Andrea borrows a quote from NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer, “Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel.” Their goal is for people to leave Canteen or Red Ox Inn feeling better than when they came in. That is all they can ask for.