Back alley boom: Why some Edmonton businesses are starting to look past main street
Whyte Avenue's Dominion Hotel soon to be the latest building to have laneway-facing retail space
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When Jeff and Amy Nachtigall started the hunt for a storefront for their popular cake business, they wanted something pedestrian-friendly and community-oriented.
Soon, they were looking past main streets, and scoping out back alleys instead.
This September, they opened Sugared & Spiced in a laneway tucked in behind Whyte Avenue. The new shop is a short walk from not just Whyte, but Gateway Boulevard and the farmer’s market, which Jeff says has been a winning recipe.
“People are at first surprised that there’s a business here, but then they walk in,” he said. The goal, he said, has been to make it look like the store has always been there, prompting details like high-end countertops and exposed brick.
“It’s working well for us,” Jeff said. “We love it.”
Their bakery is one of a handful of back alley businesses that have sprung up in Old Strathcona in the last couple of years. The storefronts have been driven by Beljan Development, the company behind the neighbouring Crawford Block at Gateway and 83 Avenue, which offers micro apartments and no car parking.
The Holy Roller restaurant recently opened at ground level, and has doors leading out the back, across from Sugared & Spiced.
Now, Chris Dulaba with Beljan Development says they’re hoping to take the trend a few blocks west, with new plans for the Dominion Hotel on Whyte Avenue.
They’ve just received a development permit to renovate the historic looking building—it’s modelled after an original hotel, but the current building dates from the 1970s, he says.
In addition to freshening up the historic façade and making “minor adjustments” to the lobby and public areas, Dulaba said they’re planning to create a retail space that faces the back alley.
“We kind of started to believe in this alley-fronting retail concept when we were putting our development program together for Crawford Block,” he said. "now we’re carrying on that theme with the Dominion Hotel."
“I think there’s a really strong opportunity to take advantage of these laneways.”
They're hoping to start renovation work in early 2018 and have spaces ready for new tenants as early as next summer.
The key to a successful back alley business is location, location, location, he said.
Old Strathcona has the farmer’s market, lots of theatre and art spaces and “permeability,” he said, meaning pedestrians can get to and between streets easily.
To that, Jeff Nachtigall added jokingly that setting up shop in a laneway requires that you be “a bit of a hustler—though in the positive sense of the term."
“We didn’t just open and then sit here and wait, we’ve been working for years to build business,” he said, referring to the couple’s popular Cake Club subscription service. Many devotees have followed them to the new store, he said, which has bolstered walk-in traffic.
But they’ve also worked hard to build relationships with surrounding businesses.
“It takes someone who will connect with this micro-community,” he said. “There are some great businesses in the area, and the owners will come in and patronize and we try to do the same.”
Dulaba said now that the concept has got some attention, he’s hoping other developers will give it a try in other part of the city.
Likewise, now that Beljan has paved the way for more back alley development, they’re hoping the city will follow suit and make the public spaces more pedestrian friendly, with better lighting and paving.
“We’re firm believers in this alley-front retail concept and if you can make it work here, it could start to spread out,” he said.
“Why not start treating the back of house like the front of house, and start creating these interesting streetscapes?”