Over the past 15 years, entrepreneurs (and childhood pals) Blair McFarlane, Sal Di Maio, and Jason Thompson have taken a rundown piece of downtown Edmonton and slowly but surely remade it for the 21st century. In fact, when you look at the 105 block of Jasper Avenue these days, the fruits of their labour are clear just about any time of day. During business hours, office workers pick up their lattes and muffins to go from Lock Stock Coffee, a cozy but high-end cafe, while others take a seat upstairs at the casual lunch spot MRKT for some of the best soup and sandwiches in the city.
Today, these businesses are of a piece with the rest of downtown Edmonton, which is developing quickly and is arguably the most exciting part of the city. But back in 2000, when McFarlane, Di Maio and Thompson signed their first lease, things looked a lot different.
“We came downtown when it was pretty quiet,” says Di Miao. “We always envisioned ourselves in the Mecca of the city, where it was busy, and happening, and bumping and jumping.” But when that much-touted revitalization didn’t show up right away, they were forced to tough it out. “I don’t think we realized the risk we were taking. Once the ball was rolling, there was no backing out.”
That first venture was a nightclub called Halo. At the time Di Maio and McFarlane had just returned from a six-month jaunt to Vancouver, and they were inspired by a little tapas bar near their apartment that played dance music, served good food and had a clear design aesthetic. Edmonton had nothing like it, so they decided to make it themselves.
Halo was an instant hit with the public when it opened in 2001 — “We were lined up the minute we opened,” Di Maio remembers — but as three rookie businessmen in their early 20s, there was a steep learning curve. Those large crowds came and went as time wore on, and it quickly dawned on the owners that these types of clubs were part of a trend. And trends have a habit of dying off. Luckily, they’d just been approved for a big increase to their line of credit. So while waiting for the Halo bubble to burst, they doubled down on their location and opened up Red Star, in the same building, in 2004.
Like Halo, the influences for Red Star came from outside city limits. “All three of us like to travel, but we go on group trips to gain inspiration,” says McFarlane. Even if they were travelling solo, each would constantly send the others pictures of whatever caught their eye, be it an interesting restaurant, coffee shop or even a clothing store. Red Star, in contrast to Halo’s trendiness, was envisioned as a more casual, everyday place to hang out and socialize. Rather than loud dance music, it played a laid back mix of soul, funk and indie rock. The two businesses turned out to be a perfect complement to one another — and that was even before the owners brought on rising-star-chef Daniel Costa, in 2009, to bring their menu to another level. “Food wasn’t a very big part of what we did here, pre-Daniel Costa,” says Di Maio. “He came in here and helped us put more emphasis on food, taught us about food, showed us a totally different way of looking at food in these environments.” Costa, who’s currently building his own gustatory empire just a few blocks down the street, also taught his employers the word gastropub: where good beer and adventurous, high-end food collide. That ethos is still part of Red Star today.