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Footnotes

Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

American billionaire's Edmonton restaurant venture a mysterious failure

Last week, two months after opening, Plow & Harvest, a 200-seat restaurant in west Edmonton, shut its doors.

It was no surprise to the countless online and media critics who crucified it for its bad food, obnoxious “brand ambassadors” and the fact that a place that doesn't even have full service charged $20 for a sandwich, pickle and drink.

When it opened, foodies such as myself were puzzled by the fact that the unknown owners hid behind a faceless Alberta corporation, Craft Kitchen Restaurant ULC, and hired a California consulting firm to do all the talking.

And talk they did, claiming that it was the "first restaurant of its kind” with a concept that was "new to Canada,” as if no one—not MRKT, Under the High Wheel or longstanding smaller local restaurants—ever thought to make comfort food with regional ingredients before.

For a restaurant that espoused farm-to-fork, an ethos connecting diners with farmers, having silent owners was enigmatic to say the least. But foodies were too distracted by the epic fail to pay much attention.

“I was really offended by the arrogance and all these press releases that made it sound like the second coming,” says CBC food critic and blogger Twyla Campbell, who was one of the first to attack Plow & Harvest.

For her ruthless blog post, Campbell even registered a legal search on the company, which listed the directors as lawyer Pat McDonald of Regina and Steve Christensen and J. Ricketts of Colorado.

Thanks to a tip on Twitter, we now know what that "J" stands for: Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs.

Ricketts also owns a Wyoming bison ranch, High Plains Bison, where Christensen is an executive, however, he’s better known for his politics.

In the last U.S. federal election he planned and funded a $10-million smear campaign linking President Barack Obama to a controversial black reverend, but when Republicans condemned it, the campaign was scrapped. Instead, he put it toward a Romney Super PAC, Ending Spending, warning Americans against excessive public spending.

So what is a powerful Republican doing opening a restaurant in Edmonton? Wait — it gets weirder.

Last December, diners in Madison, Wisc. were flabbergasted to learn that a relatively new restaurant, Bison Jacks, had jacked up the prices of its $6 bison hot dogs to $20.

The owners, Ricketts and Christensen, offered no comment, leaving the manager to make this awkward comment to a local reporter: “I’ve been in the business 29 to 30 years and this has never happened to me … I have to look for a new job.”

Like Plow & Harvest, Bison Jacks was an unusually large restaurant promising to be the first in a chain that would spread across the country. So conspicuous was its failure that one Yelper speculated, “This place seems to be only open for some financial technicality … like the owner needs it to fail miserably to reap the tax benefit or something.”

Ricketts spokesperson Allan Mayer confirmed Ricketts as a co-owner, but denied that Bison Jacks or Plow & Harvest were set up to fail.

“It was not run as a tax loss operation," he said. Mayer, who didn't know Plow & Harvest existed until a few days ago, said the restaurant just wasn’t performing up to standards and Ricketts decided to refocus on his core business, bison.

But even the greenest restaurateurs know it can take years to turn a profit.

As for the $20 hotdogs? It was a "marketing experiment" that, Mayer agreed, went awry and probably led to its closure.

I'm sure the dozens who lost their jobs and the local farmers who banked on these big contracts would have liked to have known they were part of a billionaire's poorly planned experiments.

With such dimwitted decisions, one can only wonder how Ricketts ever became a billionaire.