Our Canadian Signature Experience in Calgary
THE MAKING OF A CANADIAN SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE – YOU’VE GOT TO START SOMEWHERE
When I started Alberta Food Tours in 2006, I focused on tours that showcased the breadth and depth of Calgary’s diverse food scene. I’d hire a van and driver to transport guests to all four corners of the city. We captured tastes from Eastern Europe, Italy, Asia, the Middle East, Mexico and South America as well as local tastes at the Calgary Farmers’ Market. Those were expensive tours to produce. I made little money. But, we sure had fun and I really got people out of their comfort zone and exploring all our city has to offer.
Around that time, I was also an active volunteer for Slow Food Calgary. I ran their Feast of Fields at Rouge restaurant in Inglewood for five years. It was a meaningful gathering of great local chefs, farmers, and eaters. This fun volunteer work also gave me the chance to get to know the neighbourhood and its food businesses on a deeper level.
Rouge, for example, was a haven in the middle of the city. It boasts an acre garden and is the former home of one of the city’s most important pioneer families. I also got to know the talented owners. The duo of executive chef Paul Rogalski and the ever-charming “front of the house” partner, Olivier Reynaud opened Rouge in 2001. Rogalski and Reynaud put Calgary on the world’s dining table when they placed 60 on the San Pellegrino Top 100 restaurants in the world in 2011.
I became friends with Rogalski and Reynaud. They demonstrated a deep commitment to local farmers, generosity to all their colleagues and professionalism at all times. We bonded in our willingness to put others before ourselves for a great cause. They even let me keep our two Alberta Food Tours’ beehives in the restaurant’s garden each summer. Pretty brave for a place that hosts dozens of weddings each summer.
A CULINARY HUB
Down the street, in the early 2000s, chef Giuseppe de Gennaro topped Enroute magazine’s Best New Restaurants in Canada when he opened a tiny place called Capo. Silk Road Spice Merchant moved into the neighbourhood. Knifewear expanded from a display counter in Bite Groceteria to a full-fledged shop that drew chefs from all over the city.
Tea Trader had been selling tea since ’93 in Inglewood. Spolumbo’s had brought legitimacy to the area when they moved from their original 400-square foot deli to build the brick cornerstone of the neighbourhood in ’92. Angelo Contrada and Jesse Johnson began with cozy SUGO and are still killing it with Without Papers Pizza. Choklat, voted Canada’s best bean to bar chocolate, had its original factory in Inglewood. Wilde Grainz bakery was another fine business that we partnered with for a few years. Inglewood became a hub for food artisans.
As the neighbourhood’s reputation changed from a place to check out “junktiques” to culinary hot spot, I approached my favourite food businesses in the area to see if they’d like to be part of a neighbourhood walking tasting tour. Tony Spoletini, the energizer bunny front of the house partner at Spolumbo’s was my litmus test. I knew he was a great businessman and I thought if he gets my vision, it’s going to work.
I remember taking a deep breath to qualm the butterflies in my stomach as I asked to speak to him. He came over with a big smile. I shook his hand, introduced myself and said, I’d like to bring groups on tours to have a chance to meet you and try your products. It took him one second to say, let’s do it! There’s a reason Spolumbo’s is such a huge success. They know an opportunity when they are presented with one.
Alberta Food Tours has been happily touring in Inglewood for about dozen years now. We got into a nice roll with stable partners but at about year five, I started to tweak the tour. Visiting the Glenbow Museum’s Alberta Mavericks exhibit was a great inspiration to do so.
That exhibit made think about how many of those maverick characters, like A.E. Cross, Pat Burns, Archie McLean, and George Lan, had made Inglewood their home or hangout. Inglewood was the cradle of Calgary. It was the first residential district and first center for commerce. I began to weave more of the story of early Calgary into our tours.
Flash forward about 100 years from its prosperous beginnings, Inglewood fell on hard times. It was very rough around the edges from the 1950s to the 1980s. The food businesses brought respectability back to the neighbourhood. To me, the food business owners personified this special trailblazing maverick quality that is so uniquely Calgary. They were a group who did things first, developed brands where there were none and put Calgary on the map.
I could have left the tour alone but in 2016, I participated in a weeklong Travel Alberta workshop called SHiFT. The workshop was aimed at helping tourism providers prepare for the next evolution of our economy. We are morphing from a time where services are valued to the reality that they will soon become a commodity. I knew that if I wanted to differentiate what we had to offer the world, I needed to switch to become part of the new experience-based economy.
From baby boomers to millennials, the world is starting to feel the weight of consumerism. “Things” are out. Services are becoming commodities. People crave experiences they can’t get on their own. They want help making indelible memories.
SHIFT delivered. It got me into the right headspace.
I focused in on Inglewood and questioned everything about what we were doing. I looked at who are partners were – who we were including and who was absent. I’d heard there was a native art gallery and I felt in my bones, no story of mavericks would be right unless the Indigenous people of Alberta were included. They were the first people. They had thrived as trailblazers for 10,000 years before the newcomers came to forever threaten the survival of their people and culture.
In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, I approached Yvonne Jobin and her daughter Amy Willier, the owners of Moonstone Creation Native Art Gallery. I asked if they would be the anchor of our tour and if they would share the story of how the Indigenous people’s knowledge of bison and Saskatoon berries was both spiritual and practical. In the spirit of elders, wanting to educate and share their knowledge, they agreed.
Our Inglewood tour now starts with the recognition of the traditional lands of the people of Treaty Seven and Metis Nation Three. Guests chew on elder-approved bison jerky that’s been dried over a smoky fire for three days. They wash the bison down with Saskatoon berry tea. I think they feel right away that the three hours they’ll spend with us are going to be unlike any other food tour they’ve ever experienced.
We do a fair amount of imaginary time travel on the tour. To set the mood, I spent hours on the web searching the archives of the Glenbow Museum for photos of the Indigenous people at Fort Calgary. I zoomed my search into the time zone between when it was built in 1875 and the early 1900s. I also found photos of Inglewood’s early business district and its early pioneer mavericks. After paying for the rites, we produced a laminated photo book so guests can really see Inglewood then and now.
With the stage set for the tour at Moonstone, we visit Rouge which was built in 1891. Instead of going straight to the table like we used to, we now visit the garden where the guests imagine what it was like in the time of its famous owner Alfred Earnest (A.E.) Cross and his wife Nell. We ask them to imagine Nell Cross’s five acres of orchards and gardens as we stroll the grounds to our two beehives.
We use Alberta honey and organic Alberta canola and have the guests help make an Alberta vinaigrette to top the fresh from the garden salad greens we eat here. They take a recipe keepsake card for this Alberta Vinaigrette home with them. I hope each time they use it, they recall the sights, sounds, and smells of Rouge’s beautiful garden and our tour in Inglewood.
While the guests enjoy a succulent lunch, we are able to bring the home and garden to life with stories of the many obstacles the great maverick A.E. Cross had to overcome as a rancher, brewer, business and family man in Calgary. The fact that his original ranch, A7, is the largest ranch in Canada to remain in one family and his grandson John still delivers beef to Rouge restaurant, thrills our guests.
We leave Rouge to tour the modern-day culinary mavericks of the neighbourhood. Now we ask the group to imagine the businesses we’ll visit as modern-day equivalents to businesses that would have been part of the original Inglewood: a blacksmith, a spice emporium a general mercantile and a saloon. We’ve raised our guests’ interest and now drive home that the spirit of the maverick is alive and kicking to this day.
Our next stop is Knifewear. Here, instead of just listening to why Japanese knives are sharper, guests taste a quick pickle “quickle” of Alberta root vegetables. They feel how smoothly cut they are. Then, they try the knives out themselves.
Instead of just standing and listening to a story of spices in a blend at Silk Road Spice Merchant, we play a guessing game. Our guests discover spices by the smells of all the components that go into the famous Sharple’s Ranch beef and bison rub. They sense their way through the story behind why each element was chosen. We hope they can see themselves out at Sharple’s Ranch throwing horseshoes with the owners while a thick and juicy Alberta steak is cooking over a wood fire. Hopefully, this imagery is something they replay in their minds as they use their samples to cook up their own steaks at home.
We mosey along the main drag of Inglewood’s Ninth Avenue to Bite Grocer and Eatery and make them our modern-day general mercantile. The guests enjoy carrot cake and coffee and tea and learn about what life would be like for pioneers AND today’s people without a grocer to turn to. Inglewood would be a food desert without Bite.
We finish the tour at The National Hotel’s Offcuts Bar. This institution was built for the early railway workers. The livery building next door is one of the few original livery buildings left in Alberta. Offcuts was a rough and tumble bourbon and beer guzzling saloon frequented by famous outlaws. Sundance Kid of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid fame hung out here. Mugshots of outlaws hang on the wall. The beam of a red-light shines through a vent leading to the upstairs as a reminder of the brothel that was once found there.
At Offcuts, we drink an exclusive cocktail, made only for our tour. Naturally, it is called The Maverick. We drink it and toast the maverick spirit that built our city and that keeps it thriving today. “To the Mavericks” we say, as our glasses clink. This tour is a chance for our guests to take our trailblazing spirit into their own lives and to remember it as the true essence of Calgary.
A CANADIAN SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE
Once we had remodelled and run the tour in this matter for a season, our reviews on TripAdvisor rose dramatically. I could see the impact of the changes I’d made because of my attendance at SHiFT.
I approached Travel Alberta and asked if they would support us in an application to become one of Destination Canada’s Canadian Signature Experiences (CSE). Travel Alberta’s Marty Eberth coached me through the application process. It took the better part of a year.
Scrutiny and due diligence are crucial when Destination Canada is going to bestow the CSE status on an experience. The designation means that you join a little over 200 experiences across the country that are one of a kind ways to help visitors understand what it is to be Canadian.
On February 28, 2019, Alberta Food Tours’ Inglewood Edibles: Made by Mavericks experience was announced as a CSE. Our tour has joined the ranks of the country’s “must-do, must-see” experiences. We have a permanent home in Destination Canada’s collection that they will recommend to visitors to our country.
We are one of three experiences to be so designated in Calgary. The others are The Calgary Stampede, which happens 10 days each July and Heritage Park. We are in great company.
COME VISIT US
On behalf of all our team at Alberta Food Tours and all our partners, we are more excited than ever to welcome guests. Though I’ve described a lot of our tour here, believe me, I’ve kept lots of what happens back. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the stories and characters we reveal. I hope you’ll come and join our experience. After all, everyone can use a little more of our city’s maverick spirit in their lives.
And look for lots of other great ideas on the site of our partner, Visit Calgary. There’s so much to do here.