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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.

 

Di Maio, McFarlane and Thompson have always worked as a team, even as their interests have broadened. McFarlane moonlights as a DJ under the name Junior Brown; for years he spun eclectic sets at Red Star’s monthly reggae nights, which brings all types of Edmontonians together over some authentic Caribbean music, culture and food (most of it prepared by McFarlane and his mom). Di Maio also co-owns MRKT, a cedar-lined lunch spot upstairs from Red Star, along with chef Carla Alexander.

Thompson, meanwhile, has lived and worked as an actor in Los Angeles for more than a decade, logging a thousand episodes and counting as Dr. Patrick Drake on the soap opera General Hospital. But he’s still in constant contact with Di Maio and McFarlane, and about every aspect of the businesses; McFarlane describes him as “the silent partner who’s not silent.” That loyalty to Edmonton is clear even on social media: If you look at Thompson’s Twitter biography[m1] , the very first things you — and his 90,000+ followers — will see are links to The Bower, Red Star and Lock Stock Coffee.

As it turns out, the bubble on trendy clubs like Halo lasted about a decade. And once the trio decided it was time to gut the place and start over, they realized it wasn’t just their audience’s tastes that had changed. Theirs had, too.

“We went from laminates and drywall to oak, brick and glass,” Di Maio says of The Bower, which opened in 2012. They scouted for materials and individual items from all over the world, with the inspiration this time around coming mainly from hotel lobbies. “Real pieces of leather furniture. Something that’s warm and cozy.” They also wanted a space that would be welcoming to a broader range of clientele, no matter whether the room was at capacity, or just opened for the evening.Once again, it was a gamble. And once again, it paid off — in part because that long-awaited revitalization of downtown took off, finally, following the recession of 2008. “Things turned around overnight,” Di Maio says. “[The Bower] is the best thing we ever did,” adding that the last two years of business have been the trio’s busiest and most successful yet.Now, with the addition of Lock Stock selling gourmet coffee in the daytime hours (inspired this time by a trip to Australia), Di Maio, McFarlane and Thompson’s business empire is the largest it’s ever been. Their influence is just as big. As new restaurants continue to open along Jasper, those new owners frequently tip their hats to Halo and Red Star for paving the way. Di Maio, McFarlane and Thompson are now in their mid-to-late 30s, and have moved from being the new kids on the block to industry veterans leading a new generation of entrepreneurs by example. All thanks to a bet on downtown Edmonton that paid off better than they ever could have imagined.

 

“Edmonton is still growing,” says McFarlane of the city. “There’s so much opportunity. We grew up in the city, and in previous years people would talk pretty negatively about it: ‘There’s nothing to do here.’ Nowadays, there’s a lot more support for what the city is all about.”

“Most of that change has come in the last five years,” adds Di Maio. “It’s going to be pretty interesting to see what happens in the next five years. I think it’s going to be drastic. Downtown is never going to be dead again.

“It’s a city that’s just getting warmed up.”