2017. Wow, when I look back on the year I can hardly believe how much we accomplished. The gains, losses, challenges, opportunities… this rollercoaster took us for a good ride in 2017 and I can truly say that I don’t regret a thing. Yes, you can look at the past all you want to and wish you can do some things differently, but one: you just can’t travel back in time, and two: the whole point of this journey is to learn. All I can say at this point is that I learned a lot, and I’m looking forward to 2018 with fresh eyes and an eager determination to build something great.
We started strong in 2017, exploring new territory as we always do. The mainland’s new dining obsession became a wildfire hit: poke. We’ve been doing Hawaiian dishes since the beginning, starting with kalua pork, which is a mainstay in a lot of our dishes today. We still do Loco Moco, Saimin, mac salad, and of course the infamous Spam Musubi. Hawaiian grinds has been, and always will have a place in our hearts here. Calgary in the meantime has seen the birth of a few dedicated shops for poke, including our friends at PokeYYC, who just recently opened their 2nd location in Kensington.
The early weeks of the year brought us a couple great opportunities to expand our farmers market presence. We were approached by Granary Road, early in the year in the form of an email inviting us to come and see the latest developments in their ambitious project and to give us an opportunity to grow our operation. It was a very cold day when I went with Mikey to see the presentation by the owners of the property, wowed by the images of our logo splashed across a brand new booth in a brand new market, boasting a state of the art edutainment park, events, and activities that would set it apart from all of Calgary’s present family attractions. Though the project did look promising, we opted to stay in the city and see what other locations would present themselves.
While all this was going on, we had been talking to the kind folks at the Calgary Farmers Market (CFM). We knew that CFM was one of the city’s most popular farmers markets, and we also knew that it was a very hard market to get into. A few weeks before, we talked to a gentleman that ran a sandwich shop at CFM looking to sell his kitchen. The place looked good, and we had looked at a couple other locations for sale in the past that were just way overpriced. Sadly, this was also one of those places. We walked away, with the conclusion that if it was meant to be, we’d know it. Fast forward a few weeks and I get a text from a friend that works at CFM saying that one of the tenants in the food court pulled a midnight move and left a giant booth with a 20 foot bar in one of the best locations in the food court. The universe officially answered our call.
As beautiful as the location at CFM is, it’s not perfect. Though it has a very high visibility and great frontage, it doesn’t have the HVAC system that many of the standard kitchens do, meaning that our menu would have to offer something that is still signature EoA but with the limitation of not having a full offering of the items that one would get at the Crossroads location. I had decided early on that we would start by making this location a noodle bar. We would make a “build your own ramen” concept, which would make an otherwise small offering, much more vast. We also decided that steamed bao would be offered here as well as it would be totally feasible to do braised proteins and put a steamer in place.
It’s been a real challenge thus far to make it into the place it is, and I can guarantee you that there are many improvements and new things on the way. Finding a team that can run a place the way you want it run is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s a never ending battle sometimes that can really beat you up. I remember the first few weeks after opening CFM going through a major staffing change as my brother Dave went back to school. We had someone that had expressed interest and excitement in filling the role as Dave was getting ready to leave. He had spent a lot of time training this new person and preparing for the job. I was feeling optimistic and happy that things were running so smoothly. That was until the changeover. It was maybe a week when the new person just wanted to quit. The reason was that the job wasn’t what she was thinking it would be. It was hard work, managing people was challenging, and that she wasn’t big on commitment. #facepalm
Her replacement eventually came…and gone. This time, a very hard worker and dedicated cook did his job beautifully for many months. He was so passionate to our cause that had expressed an interest in investing in another expansion when we were ready. I took it as a compliment that we were doing some great things, and told him that I would seriously consider it when the time came. That day came on a Sunday evening after close when he just dropped the news that he was going to quit and start his own place at….Granary Road. No notice, no nothing. I felt so defeated, then angry, then finally it was time to brush off the dust and move on.
I can tell you that I do have a great team of people that I depend on and am extremely proud of. And just like friends, you don’t need a lot of them. As long as you have a couple really good people that are genuinely down for the long haul, you’ll be fine.
After all the stress of opening CFM, it became clear that I needed some balance in the way I live this life I love. That came in the form of a little redhead named, Erin. No, No…it’s not like that! Let me explain.
My son Josh has a girlfriend, Grace. She is in the culinary program at Central Memorial High School. Last year he was helping out her class by volunteering for the catering events. One night while picking him up, I wanted to check out the event and see what he was up to. It was the school’s open house and the culinary department had put out an enormous spread of food for the parents, students, and staff. Grace introduced me to her teacher, Miss Erin Boukall, who was the instructor for all these kids that were putting out all this great food and having an awesome time being professional and learning practical skills. I remember at the time as I talked to her that she was really, really passionate about food. Not every high school teacher is teaching her class how to make ramen from scratch. That’s so cool! I told her a little about my time with YouTube and how I loved to teach cooking. By the end of the evening, I had an email address and a chance to teach her class for a day.
Teaching is a very fulfilling thing to do. As a YouTube content creator, I got plenty of satisfaction making a cooking show every week, just doing something I loved to do. I interacted with my viewers, answered my comments, and truly engaged with the audience. It wasn’t until I did the demo at the high school that I realized how good it made me feel compared to the feeling that I would get after getting comments on a YouTube video. In retrospect, going full time into cooking via opening Eats of Asia was a way for me to validate myself as a cook as I could see the direct result of my skills in the reactions of my guests. The same came from teaching at the school. The interactivity, the anticipation, the curious minds at play all contributed to this great feeling of satisfaction that I felt was missing from the day to day grind of operating a restaurant business. In a way it was a level up from YouTube. Validation in my cooking skill on one hand, and validation of my skills as a teacher on the other. This is the part where I get the red mushroom and become Super Mario.
It turned out as a bonus for me all this teaching. As a result of getting to work with these fantastic kids, I met and eventually hired four new members for our little team, which I eventually dubbed, Team EoA. Grace, Dakota, Brinn, and Samantha. All new hires as we moved into the Spring/Summer season. All of these kids are a pleasure to work with, they are smart, work hard, and have a passion for food that rivals the best chefs out there.
So as you can see, 2017 did bring a lot of challenges that really tried to beat us down, but ended on such a promising note. I am grateful that I had the smarts to be able to step back and learn something from all this rather than be angry or vengeful. All in all I think that life is something we have to take the time to savour and appreciate in all its glory, even the bad times. If we can’t take anything positive from all this, what kind of boring story would we have left to tell?
Have a Happy New Year and all the best for 2018!