Calgary on the Hudson: Revamped Edwardian Bay building is Calgary’s newest place to be seen
Even in hard-up Calgary, where the oil shock has hammered the restaurant and entertainment scene particularly hard, the renewal of the historic Bay building downtown by Toronto-based Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants has received the warmest western welcome. In its first expansion outside southern Ontario, the restaurant and event company took over a significant part of the main floor, basement and top floor of a century-old retail landmark to launch a stunning new eatery (The Guild) with a bar and patio that spills under the portico onto the busy Stephen Avenue Mall, a cocktail lounge (Sub Rosa) and, most recently, a venue for big gatherings called The Hudson. Meanwhile, the department store has shrunk its footprint and retreated into the remaining space.
The changes are all part of a broad partnership between Oliver & Bonacini and the Bay that started in 2012 with the establishment of a restaurant, in-house bakery and event space at the retailer’s Toronto Queen Street store. Plans are being discussed for other prime Bay locations across the country, too. The Calgary project, with its Mounties-inspired art, rustic leather furniture and hardwood floors, is a tribute to Western Canada and the Hudson’s Bay Co. as one of the country’s nation builders, says Andrew Oliver, Oliver & Bonacini’s CEO, president and major shareholder. “We wanted to let you know that you are in one of the great cities in Canada and we wanted the design to reflect that,” he says.
The project was hatched long before oil prices tanked. But rather than pulling the plug, Oliver & Bonacini — which employs roughly 2,000 people and generates about $100 million in annual sales — discovered that doing business in Alberta during an oil downturn has its upside. Eager to diversify the economy, “the government there and the city are really pro-business, which is very nice to see,” Oliver says.
Indeed, Oliver & Bonacini significantly increased the Calgary project halfway through construction after realizing that even though the oil and gas business was in retreat, a lot of business was still being done, people were still getting married and conferences were still being organized. On top of that, Albertans still had one of Canada’s highest per capital disposable incomes, and they “worked hard and played harder,” he says. Yet the city was short of large-scale event space.
The restaurant and lounge, which have been open for a year, have had steady traffic from both the downtown office crowd and tourists. The Hudson, which opened in May and can accommodate up to 700 people, is preparing for a busy fall season of Christmas parties, corporate events, charity galas and weddings. Already, there are bookings well into next year.
A big draw at both the restaurant and the Hudson is the Canadian cuisine on offer, Oliver says. From poutine to Alberta beef to devilled eggs, a lot of the ingredients are sourced from local farmers and cattlemen. All meats are aged in-house. “The culinary scene across the country and, in particular, Alberta is unbelievable,” he says. “There are amazingly talented chefs doing amazing things. And we are just happy to be part of it.”
The Calgary project ended up costing about $20 million, more than originally planned, and much of the overrun was related to the renovation of the Edwardian building. On the top floor, which at one point housed the Bay’s cafeteria, the only reminder of the bygone era is an old escalator that was kept to provide an emergency exit.
Repurposing historic buildings is worth the extra cost and effort because clients love their character, artisanship and craftsmanship, Oliver says. In addition, it’s not easy to find such large spaces and a landlord such as the Bay that is prepared to do a long-term deal. “You couldn’t build these historic buildings today,” he says. “As long as Calgarians can continue to support us as much as they have, we will evolve and do our best to hit the nail on the head on what makes sense now, but we are there for the long run. Our deal with HBC is for 20 years; we definitely went in and doubled down knowing that 20 years is a long time.” FPM