Homegrown restaurants keep Red Deer's dining scene perking despite pandemic
Support of local businesses has seen some restaurants expand in this past year
CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary have teamed up to launch a pop-up Red Deer bureau to help us tell your stories from central Alberta. For the next month, reporter Heather Marcoux will bring you the news from Red Deer and the surrounding area. Story ideas and tips can be sent to email@example.com.
Call it a sign of the times: the Starbucks logo has come down at Clearview Market Square, a thriving shopping plaza in Red Deer's northeast.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the past year difficult for the food-service industry, which has suffered temporary shutdowns and — as is the case of the popular coffee chain — the permanent closure of hundreds of locations as companies respond to changes in consumer habits.
But the gaps left in Red Deer's dining scene by departing chain restaurants are being filled by Alberta entrepreneurs expanding their small businesses.
In early 2020, Red Deer entrepreneur Jonathan Strome was just getting started with his newest venture, a food truck called Taco Monster.
"Taco Monster was something we planned before 2020 hit. Our initial planning and dreaming sessions were like six, seven months before I had heard of COVID," Strome said.
"Once it did start to happen and the pandemic started to shut things down, we were already really far in."
But the community quickly embraced the food truck. By July, Strome was fielding questions about a permanent location as customers wondered how they could keep supporting his business in the winter months.
"It's easy to get caught up in the negative and all the broken hopes that you may have had," he said, "but we decided that we wanted to push forward and make the most of the opportunities available to us and move ahead anyway."
Moving ahead meant moving into the Gasoline Alley Farmers' Market, which opened in November on Laura Avenue.
The permanent indoor location means Taco Monster fans can enjoy its fast-casual meals during Alberta winters when outdoor food trucks would risk serving meals with a side of frostbite.
The market, which is open Friday through Sunday, is running at a reduced capacity due to COVID-19 but it is still helping create success stories for Alberta entrepreneurs.
Unlike Strome, who was born and raised in Red Deer, restaurateur Arce Morales calls Calgary home. However, Morales has been so impressed by the support of Red Deer residents that he is doubling down on his investment in the community.
Morales operates his Oishidesu Ramen Shack at the indoor farmers' market but the overwhelming demand for ramen seven days a week has encouraged him to expand.
"So I said like, 'Don't worry, I'm gonna find another place, maybe in the centre,'" Morales recalled.
He has found a location on Ross Street in Red Deer's downtown and intends to open it before the end of February.
Morales will have plenty of company downtown, where new restaurants are joining established local favourites.
Tucked away in the Millennium Centre, Louise Zanussi operates Café Millennium.
The café, which just celebrated its 18th anniversary, has kept its downtown location open with slightly reduced hours during the pandemic. "There's a lot to offer down here," Zanussi said.
Like Strome and Morales, Zanussi is also brewing her Café Millennium coffee at the Gasoline Alley Farmers' Market.
Given the pandemic and economic downturn, Zanussi said the support she and other local businesses have received from residents has been heartwarming.
"Even if they can't afford a lot right now," she said, "they'll still come down and get a cookie or a coffee."