Edmonton restaurateur fundraises to open burger, bagel and beer businesses

Edmonton restaurateur Nate Box wants to establish three new businesses in the historic building known as the Gibbard Block, but he won’t rely on the banks to make it happen.

Nate Box applying 'out-of-box thinking' to historic Gibbard Block in Highlands

The Gibbard Block, which formerly housed the La Boheme restaurant, could be the site of a new restaurant, deli and liquor store owned by Edmonton's Nate Box. (Edmonton Historical Board)

Restaurateur Nate Box wants to establish three new businesses in a historic building in the Highlands neighbourhood — but he's relying on the generosity of Edmontonians to make it happen.

Box, who owns several other casual dining restaurants including District Café  and Bakery, Salz, and Little Brick, has plans for a new restaurant, deli and boutique liquor store inside the three-storey, brick-clad Gibbard Block at 6427 112th Ave.

"We have a tried-and-tested brand, and we hope that people can part with $25 or more and really rally behind us to build a cultural hub there," Box said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Whether you live in that neighbourhood or not, I think it's about supporting small business and considering a different way of doing business."

Last month, Box launched an online fundraiser for $100,000. As of Tuesday afternoon, $20,000 had been donated to the "all or nothing" Kickstarter campaign.

The funding will only be released to Box if the campaign reaches its goal by Oct 21, 2018.

"The Gibbard Block is a beautiful heritage building in northeast Edmonton," Box said. "Friends of ours purchased it and they kind of twisted our arms to consider taking on this 8,000-square-foot project." 

'Banks hate restaurants'

The rest of the financing needed for the $900,000 venture will come from Box, his business partners, a few private investors and the landlord, Sparrow Capital. Only a bare minimum will come from the bank, Box said.

"Because banks hate restaurants," he said.

It feels like one step forward, two steps back."- Nate Box. 

The restaurant business is tough and lenders are hesitant to do business with start-ups, Box said. "They want to see long-term sustainable growth and profit."

His company, Black Box Hospitality Group, is also at a disadvantage due to the number of new restaurants in his portfolio.

"We've opened so many restaurants in the past few years that it makes it difficult to go to the banks," Box said. "When we add new shops, it kind of takes it one peg back. It feels like one step forward, two steps back."

Without a large debt load from the banks, and a sense of investment from the community, the business will have a better chance of success.

"We're trying to think about it differently. This isn't a cash grab," Box said. 

"We want to alleviate some of that burden but we're still taking on a huge risk.

Recently, the proponents behind a new live music and performing arts venue, Marvins Garden, pulled the plug after a crowdfunding attempt to raise $190,000 only earned $9,000.

Box has committed to lease the Gibbard Block's basement and entire main floor.

Three businesses will occupy the space — The Fox Burger, a 40-seat "craft burger and beer shack," June's Delicatessen, which will serve up house-made bagels and pastrami, and Highlands Liquor store. 

A rendering of what the Gibbard Block is to look like following the renovation. (NEXT Architects, Sparrow Capital)

Restorations on the 1912 building began in March when La Boheme Restaurant Bed & Breakfast closed its doors after 37 years.

The sale of the building to Sparrow Capital became official on March 31. The company spent $1.5 million to buy the building and will spend another $2.5 million on the renovations. That includes a grant of $430,000 from the City of Edmonton.

If all goes as planned, Box hopes to be serving up beer, burgers and bagels in the Gibbard Block by early 2019.

He believes in the neighbourhood and hopes to bring something new to residents outside the downtown core.

"The idea behind this project is to really enhance the neighbourhood, to enhance the cultural fabric," Box said. "This is a bit of outside-the-box thinking."