North 53’s clear plan, concept brings success

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. Profiles will be posted on TLG, and you can find her review of North 53 on her own blog. 

Menus and a cocktail at North 53. Photo: Crystal Lee
Menus and a cocktail at North 53. Photo: Crystal Lee

North 53 is one of Edmonton’s recent culinary success stories. They were selected as the Best New Restaurant by Where Magazine in 2014, listed as a nominee for Canada’s Best New Restaurants by Air Canada’s En Route Magazine in the same year and chosen as one of the top 100 places to eat by readers of The Tomato in 2015.

In the short few years that the restaurant has been open, they have received plenty of positive media attention, making large gains in Edmonton’s food scene and continued their success with a revamped concept. Owner Kevin Cam and North 53’s general manager, Alex Trann-McEwen, talked about the top five things they feel have contributed to their triumphs so far.

1. Team building
Extremely vital to a business, Kevin knew that he needed a solid team that could work well together. When North 53 was first introduced, the kitchen was helmed by chef Ben Staley. About a year after opening, the two parted ways with Ben moving on to start his own restaurant, The Alder Room. The change, not a surprise for either, allowed Kevin to realign his cooking team and menu with his vision of what he wanted the restaurant to be.

In stepped chef Filliep Lament, whose cooking style and previous experiences in Montreal mirrored what Kevin imagined. The remainder of the team consists of friendly and knowledgeable chefs, cooks, servers, bartenders and Alex, all who help run the ship alongside Kevin.

With the majority of the staff members at North 53 hailing from Edmonton, there is a lot of city pride that comes with this team that strives for service and socialization at a personal level.

It’s not always about work though. To keep the camaraderie going, staff gather once every few months for a group outing (which may include a visit to some of their favourite places in Edmonton: Three Boars, Corso 32, Cibo Bistro, RGE RD, Rostizado and Woodwork, among others). The focus on those occasions is team building, and both Kevin and Alex admit that things can get a little crazy, in a good way, when they all get together.

2. Effective branding
As Kevin and Alex put it, your business is a story, and your branding team determines how well it is told. North 53 teamed up with Overhaul Media who helped Kevin create North 53’s story piece by piece.

Early tactics included interviews with different media outlets, soft openings for the press, a stress on social media and clear physical branding. Something often overlooked by eateries and bars, was crucial to North 53’s development.

3. Culture
Kevin and his team have worked hard to establish a certain environment at North 53. It boils down to the staff they hire, the dress codes implemented, the music they play and the look of the restaurant.

North 53 brand, food offerings and a cocktail. Photos: Crystal Lee

Every choice has provided them an opportunity to showcase what they want North 53 to be and has helped to set them apart from other eateries and bars in the city.

The diversity of Edmonton and Canada — sometimes referred to as a melting pot — is also reflected in North 53’s offerings. Described as elevated comfort food, the kitchen team consists of those from various cultures, and their backgrounds influence the flavours found in the dishes they serve. Quality ingredients are showcased in the best way possible while still being relatable.

4. Concept
Originally from Vancouver where the competition is vast, Kevin noticed that diversity was lacking in the Edmonton food and cocktail scene. He decided that he wanted to bring unique ideas seen during his travels to the city.

It was clear that North 53 needed a strong concept. Otherwise, the business would run the risk of confusing their market. Attempting to be or do too many things at once is often a misstep.

Although North 53 avoided taking on several guises when in its first iteration with chef Ben Staley, Kevin and Ben realized that their visions did not match. The more intricate, outside-the-box menu and the higher prices during the restaurant’s first year led to North 53 becoming a destination location. Diners would only visit on special occasions, but having repeat customers is the lifeline of any viable business.

Staying on that trajectory was not a sustainable business model and Kevin decided to rebrand North 53 as a more approachable, fun eatery and cocktail bar. Filliep was brought in as head chef, and the two, along with a couple of his principal bartenders, jetted off to Toronto on a research and development trip. In just three nights, the quartet squeezed in visits to over 30 locations, gathering information to reimagine North 53.

The restaurant closed for a week towards the end of 2014 while the website was revamped, furniture was updated and the food and cocktail menus were forged. Taking the time to overhaul the vision of North 53 worked. Since the changes took hold, business has doubled and more diners are becoming regulars every week. Plus, the accolades mentioned earlier have ramped up.

Based on the improvements that the business has seen within the last year, it is safe to say that North 53’s concept is evident and relevant to their customers.

5. Community involvement
The North 53 team takes pleasure in serving the community, but also in being a part of it. Whether that comes in the form of donating to local charities or giving their time to charitable causes, playing a role is important because the community has supported them immensely.

North 53 stands by numerous organizations in the city, including the annual Snowflake Gala in support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and Santas Anonymous. Kevin also actively volunteers for the Hope Mission.

Kevin specifically chose the location on 124 Street because of the community-driven mindset of the people. Businesses in this area of the city are 95 per cent locally owned and calling the corner at 102 Avenue and 124 Street North 53’s home means a lot to Kevin and his staff.

Their home can be called yours, too. Kevin calls it the “no-strings attached experience.” It is another concept of Kevin’s that falls within his personal philosophy: keep things simple, do not take life too seriously and extract as much fun out of life as one can. North 53 avoids fuss and pretension and supplies good food, strong cocktails and a fun atmosphere.

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