A growing food empire flourishing in Old Strathcona.
Thirteen years and five businesses could be a strain on any relationship, but Saylish Haas assures that their trio is still the best of friends.
Before a career-changing trip to Mexico, Saylish was regional manager for Urban Barn, Michael Rebalkin was operations manager for the JOEY chain, and Nathan McLaughlin had taken his Red Seal certification up north to the kitchen camps. But a family business had just gone up for sale, and the long-time friends were starting to consider a new plan of action.
This new venture included a space that originally housed The Old Strathcona Coffee Company in the 80s, until it was turned into The Next Act in 1992. Behind both was Mike’s step-uncle, who was ready to pass the torch. Keys changed hands in 2010, and so the empire began.
“We didn’t have any money, so we literally just took off all the beer paraphernalia and trinkets and then started featuring different local artists every month or quarter,” says Saylish. “We kept the initial structure, the table, chairs, and booths, the same hunter green colour.” This approach to local art still remains, and you can find new works (many for sale!) along the walls, though the iconic stools finally needed to be replaced this year and were auctioned off.
In 2014, the neighbouring space became available—and Saylish wanted it. “We learned quite quickly that three is a very good number for us,” she says. “Our whole philosophy over the past 13 years has been two against one.” So while Mike was (momentarily!) hesitant about expanding the brand, Saylish got Nathan on board, convincing him that they could learn how to barbecue and smoke meats. Which they did, down in Texas, and then got their own smoker that could fit 700 pounds of meat at once.
This strategy may have been foretold by Saylish’s grandmother. “She had always said when I was really little that I was gonna be CEO of a big corporation one day. I was always very bossy and always had big plans.” Her late grandfather had also been an entrepreneur, having owned his own music shop and a popular German restaurant on Edmonton’s 97th Street in the 1960s, after a long career in radio broadcasting and as the famous accordionist known as Canada’s Mr. Polka.
“It’s always nice to hear stories of the extravagant opportunities he risked and took on,” says Saylish. “We have a schnitzel on the menu here that I bet would [have been] one of his favourites.”
Still unfolding were her own big plans and opportunities. When she noticed the space on
the other side of Next Act was empty, she rushed to contact her business partners, who ironically enough were back in Mexico. Once again, it was clear that the best neighbours you can have are yourselves, so cocktails and brunch became available on the corner at Pip (now considered Little Pip) in 2016, eventually leading to the milestone purchase of the entire building.
“The biggest reason we chose to expand each time is because we always had highly capable and skilled people working for us,” she says. “We wanted to give an opportunity of growth for a lot of people on our team.” Over 13 years, their team has grown from 6 to over 150, with the trio at the forefront.
For decades, one of their stable neighbours had been Packrat Louie Kitchen & Bar, located across the street in a large building with brick accents. After Packrat Louie’s closure, several restaurants called the building home, including Lyon Restaurant and Bottega Italian Kitchen, but nothing stuck. When the space became vacant once again, the three friends jumped at the chance for their own shot. Little Pip had been too small for how they envisioned the overall experience, but the old Packrat was much too big. The Goldilocks answer was to, of course, open two restaurants under one roof and start a sandwich bar. Pip and Pal’s and the new company bread program happily coexisting, ready to receive smoked meats from MEAT and start becoming a self-sustaining family.
Each concept and each new menu have been welcomed thus far with open arms from not only the Old Strathcona community, but the entire Edmonton dining scene, even earning various awards. “I don’t know if every city could say that it’s as welcoming and warm of an industry, where people are so supportive of each other,” says Saylish. “People support each other’s businesses and they’re excited to see them do well.”
So what’s next? Well, Little Pip needed a new purpose. And the previous trip to Mexico had included some taco research. And they have plenty of space to go around to make their own fresh corn tortillas. Enter Marlo, restaurant #5, ideally opening in April 2023.
“I’m done after this one,” laughs Saylish. “I just don’t have any more bandwidth in me to have more than five.”
Well, we’re going to keep tabs anyways, just in case. Catch you on the pip side.
Walk the block and take your pick–are you craving burgers, barbecue, tacos, cocktails?
- • Next Act: 8224–104 St. nextactpub.com
- • MEAT: 8216–104 St. meatfordinner.com
- • Pip: 10335–83 Ave. pipyeg.com
- • Pals: 10335–83 Ave. palsyeg.com
- • Marlo: 10403–83 Ave. Coming soon.