This is a city where creativity and community go hand in hand. In this series I’m exploring the local businesses and spaces whose collaborative natures make them more than the sum of their parts.
Little Brick Cafe and General Store, one of Edmonton’s newest collaborative spaces, is truly a joint effort, defined as much by the community it’s nestled in as by the 112-year-old building that houses it and the creative minds that came together to build it.
Previously, the historic home that J.B. Little built next to his brickyard in 1903 carried no historic designation or protection from the City of Edmonton, and was neglected by its tenants. A little over a year ago, Nate Box and a few partners, converted the building into a thriving cafe, general store, office and event space with a large, welcoming backyard. As the only public gathering space in Riverdale, besides the community league, it has — as Box hoped — filled a hole in this and surrounding communities by giving residents a place to come together.
“What we initially set out with was that we’re gonna be a great little cafe and general store for the neighborhood,” says Box. “And it grew from there to realize that there are a lot of neighboring communities here that are missing very similar establishments.”
The space, at 10004 90 St., brings together elements that one might not expect to see in the same building: tech companies innovate in the office space upstairs while children and dogs play in the backyard beside couples chatting over lattes. You can stop in and pick up baking supplies and various kitchen implements, or enjoy a barbecue with your neighbors. You can rent the space for your birthday party, or bring your 30 closest mountain-biking friends for lunch.
It was Box’s friend Clark Murray who first saw the potential of the building and convinced Box and several other partners to get involved. “We’ve been talking for years about working together and he showed me this project and said, ‘We need to do something here,’” Box says.
This collaboration has developed into a symbiotic relationship, as the restaurant is using a point-of-sale system, called Dub5, that is being developed by Murray and partners in the offices upstairs.
“It’s fun because we can sit down and say we need this in order to make our business run better. And because we know it will work here, we know it will work in my other shops and we can be fairly confident that it will work for other vendors,” says Box.
Besides the business partnerships taking place within the building itself — Edmonton favourites Oilers Nation and Oodle Noodle also use office space upstairs — Little Brick is a unique venue where other businesses can throw events and build community. Recently real estate company Red Brick held the launch party for two newly built Riverdale homes at Little Brick, something that would have had to happen outside of the neighborhood before this space came along. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons hosted their post-conference dinner there and said it was the best thing they’ve done in four years.
Part of what makes this space so appealing to the community and to other businesses is the relaxed feeling that you’ll find in all of Box’s cafes (now numbering four including Elm, District and Burrow). Box admits that the coffee industry does have a bit of a reputation for pride or arrogance, but he hopes the feeling is different in his cafes.
“We’re not gonna sit and proselytize about why it’s important to have really great coffee on your shelf. We just believe that a really great product will speak for itself,” he says.
Instead, this business and the others are run on five governing principles: quality, simplicity, stewardship, sustainability and servant-heartedness. This last quality is about getting back to the roots of customer service and finding the careful balance between confidence and humility. Says Box, “People who come through, who are choosing to willingly spend their hard-earned money at our establishment should be met with gracefulness, thankfulness and respect.” This effort has been rewarded with loyal customers.
“We’ve had intercompany debates [between the four cafes] on who has the best regulars,” Box says with a laugh.
Building such a dedicated following has to be part of the early success of Little Brick. When Box approached the community league to gauge interest in the project, he was met with universal support, and that support has only continued to grow. As they work on developing the backyard, they have added garden space and built vertical planter boxes. Community members not only provided advice on gardening, but have even brought plants to help fill them. Chef Chael MacDonald can be seen pulling herbs from the boxes, and visiting children have been known to pluck ripe tomatoes right off the vine.
One of their upcoming initiatives will be to invite people to trade their home-grown veggies for coffee. The plan is to turn what might otherwise be unwanted, excess vegetables into pickles, jams, jellies and sauces.
“It’s fun doing a project like this because it’s so out there. I don’t know of any other place in the city, or in any city that is doing this,” Box says.
The team’s commitment to preserving the integrity of the historical building is another huge selling point for the community. “We could bulldoze this and build some cool, fresh, urban-designed building, but it would stick out like a sore thumb,” says Box. “And we would lose the challenge of building into a neighborhood in a really authentic way. And we’d also lose a lot of the care and respect of the people around.”
A lot of how they’ve decided to use the space has been dependent on the building itself. As Box explains, the plumbing limited the number of bathrooms that could be installed, which limited the amount of seating they could have. And the backyard entrance was chosen because it was at ground level, whereas the the front door would have required a 35-foot ramp to make it accessible and barrier-free. Once this was decided on, it became clear that they could use a wooden walkway and develop the backyard to create a “yellow-brick road or a secret garden” feel.
This ability to play with such a large space is unique to a residential area like Riverdale, whereas as the desire to build something site-specific is not. Each of Box’s properties serves the unique needs of the neighborhood in which it is situated, partly because the idea of a chain or franchise carries such a negative stigma, and partly because each area has different demands, and a different aesthetic.
“We sat down and asked, what does this neighborhood need?” Box says. “And then when you grow out from that, what does this city need? And it’s fun to be able to create a different brand or identity for a specific neighborhood.”
Once the bricks from the Little brickyard helped build Edmonton neighborhoods. Now the Little Brick Cafe is helping to build community in those same neighborhoods, and redefining the possibilities for business in Edmonton.