One year on, the fight continues to find the Fat Fox a home

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The quest to reintroduce the Fox to Yellowknife continues.

May 19, 2019 marks exactly one year since the Fat Fox Café closed its doors on 50 Street – issues with its rented premises being to blame.

Though the café was open for only two years, it built enough of a following for its closure to feel like a Yellowknife institution had been dismantled.

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In the 12 months since, owners Jeremy Flatt and Emma Atkinson have created a bustling catering service bearing the Fox's name, then moved into the city's curling club.

However, top priority for the pair remains the renard restaurant's rebirth downtown.

In an interview with Cabin Radio, Flatt and Atkinson said plans to construct their own downtown building recently fell apart.

Now they're once again casting around for the perfect location, admitting they are "being picky" to find somewhere that will feel like the old Fat Fox once they move in.

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But does that space exist in a downtown with few realistic options?

Below, read a full transcript as the Fat Fox family reflects on its first year without a home.


This interview was recorded on May 17, 2019. You can hear the interview in full on Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News, to be broadcast from 12pm on Tuesday, May 21. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: What has the past year been like for you?

Jeremy Flatt: We took a big break after closing. That was nice. We went back to the UK for a few months to kind-of figure out our plan for the future.

Since we came back from that trip in October, we've been focusing on our catering flat-out, trying to keep the business going. Emma and I were facing this dilemma where we had this plan for reopening and it was going to be really cool, but it's something that takes a lot of time and we were trying to figure out how to pay the bills in the meantime. We didn't really want to just pack it in and get jobs.

So we started the catering and it's been really crazy busy, which is great. We rented the kitchen at the curling club from the City and we've been in there for six months, is it now? Something like that? Since October, however long ago that was. That's basically what we've been doing. Pretty-much since then we have been down there, cooking, almost every hour of the day.

Before we went on air here, you guys came in and, Emma, you were making it sound like you are barely even remembering to eat each day.

Emma Atkinson: We average like a meal a day. We get in around six then it's like frantic, frantic, frantic delivery, cleaning, more cleaning, and then it's like, 'OK, what food is there?' Leftover scones. Stuff them in your face.

Jeremy: Little bits of fruit from fruit trays. We do a lot of grazing. I think I've actually eaten fairly healthily.

Emma: Oh, not me.

Jeremy: You don't eat as many of the leftover veggies as I do. If we do a veggie tray for people's afternoon snacks and there are some sugar snap peas left over and stuff… no? Am I not supposed to say that? Oh, sorry. Yeah, I definitely don't eat any leftover stuff from people's trays.

You rescued that very well.

Jeremy: Often, you are scrambling to find time to eat. I think that's the point. You graze a bit and then have a big meal at the end of the day.

So with that being the case, do you guys still have ambitions to reopen somewhere? You sound like you're being kept more than busy enough as it is.

Emma: It's funny. When we came back, and set the catering up, we thought it was going to be so easy compared to running a cafe. We'll just have a few days of catering, and then we'll have a few days of holiday.

Jeremy: Play with the baby, have a great time.

Emma: It has not been like that. We are working just as much. We have a much smaller team: we have three employees now. So it's a lot harder to delegate some of the work.

It's funny. The Business Development and Investment Corporation has, ironically, taken the last usable street-level retail space downtown.

JEREMY FLATT

Jeremy: It's not as social. It's good business-wise and we're able to pay ourselves, which is really nice – and actually not super-common when you're a new small business. So that side of it's really good. But I really, really miss the social aspect of having the cafe downtown. That was great, having a place where you've decorated it the exact way you want, you play the music that you want.

It's really nice turning up to deliver somebody's lunch and telling them what it is and seeing them get excited, and all that kind of thing, but there was something else about people coming in on a really busy Friday when I know that it's my cafe, I can play Queens of the Stone Age if I want, and see people come in and feel energized by it all. It's a different kind of pressure and something that we really miss.

A worker clears rubble following the demolition of Yellowknife's Fat Fox building in September 2018

A worker clears rubble following the demolition of Yellowknife's Fat Fox building in September 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Despite the fact that this side of the business is going really well, we still do have the ambition to reopen. We certainly have had [that ambition] for the last year, and we've been really working on on a plan, but it's sort-of – maybe this is the time to tell it, I don't know – we had a bit of a setback with it, and we kind-of…

Emma: We had a plan. A specific plan.

OK. Tell us about the plan.

Emma: We can't really go into much detail about the plan. There was a specific plan, and it involved building a new building downtown. But that plan has now kind-of…

Jeremy: It's just not feasible for lots of little, quite-boring reasons.

Emma: And we only just got this news. So now we've got to think about what we do.

Jeremy: The issue we have is that there's a shortage of available space for the kind of business that we are.

We have to be downtown because we depend on the coffee breaks, and the lunch crowds, and that sort of thing. But also I think the downtown was a big part of our identity. We were a downtown place and we were optimistic about the future of downtown and all that sort of thing, and we don't want to kind-of bail on that.

But for what we were doing, you have to be on street level, for one thing, because you're depending on a lot of people walking in and out. It is amazing how much difference a staircase makes, regardless of whether it's a staircase going down or going up. It really makes a difference, and there's a lot of research out there about this to back it up.

Emma: And it's funny because people say, 'Oh, this is Yellowknife, it's small, people will come – it doesn't matter where you are.'

But it's not true. I can tell you, just from running the Fox for two years: when it was cold, people didn't come. The street we were on, there's not many people walking down it go to work – so we didn't get a morning coffee crowd, we got a lunch crowd. Occasionally we'd get an afternoon coffee break – you know, those GNWT workers would come. But most of the time it was people coming for lunch.

Jeremy: Or people who had a decent amount of time to spend. We were looking at a new location that would have been a little bit more expensive than the one we were in. And therefore we needed to aim for a higher revenue, which meant more people coming in for convenience things.

There are currently people in Yellowknife listening to this with maps unfurled on tables being like, 'Right, OK, they've said new building, downtown, more traffic.' Protactor, compass… it must be… where? Come on.

Emma: I really don't think we can say but it was very central, and it would have been the best in town.

Jeremy: We're in this weird position where we have the resources to reopen but there isn't quite the right space. And this is going to sound like we're being really picky, and I guess we kind-of are, but you have to be picky when it's all the money you have in the world.

Emma: Plus all the money you don't have, because you're going to a bank saying please give me $1 million, effectively. And it's all your time and energy. And it is a lot, so it's got to be right.

The exterior of the Fat Fox building days before it was torn down, in late August 2018

The exterior of the Fat Fox building days before it was torn down, in late August 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Jeremy: You have to do everything you can to minimize the risks.

Emma: It's such a marginal business.

Jeremy: A while ago, we looked at the space just underneath you guys [on Franklin Avenue, between 50 Street and 51 Street] because it's great. It's right on the corner. It's a really high foot-traffic area. But it is part of a really big office complex.

And now, it's kind-of funny: BDIC is in there. The Business Development and Investment Corporation has, ironically, taken the last usable street-level retail space downtown.

It's not really their fault. You'd obviously have to convince the landlords to do an expensive refit to turn it into a restaurant, then you've got to go through repurposing, permitting, and stuff like that, which is a pain.

We would probably have been on at the landlords on your behalf on a daily basis. It's really difficult to go to BDIC for lunch. Every time we go in there and ask for takeout, they look very askance at me.

Jeremy: You might get a sandwich, but they'll resent you for it.

Because it was theirs.

Jeremy: So, that's the essence of the situation we're in. There were a couple of other restaurants that emptied out that were available, that are no longer empty. We thought about the Cellar. But the other thing that's important, and you forget in the timeline of this – we'd had this plan about building a new building for quite a while before the Fox closed.

There were obvious problems with the building, although we didn't necessarily know how serious they were, but we were looking ahead and thinking that we wanted to be able to make a transition more smoothly if we could. When we did close the Fox, and there were possible other places we could have moved into, we were already invested in this other plan, so we weren't really looking at doing a quick refurbishment of another place to fill the gap.

I wish I could say there was a really solid Plan B. I just want to say we're trying! We're trying to work something out.

JEREMY FLATT

Because even a quick refurbishment of a restaurant might cost you $50,000 – that's half of your mortgage downpayment or whatever gone, already. You have to weigh the options.

I think one thing with the Fat Fox was, it was this whole package. If we had tried to go into what's now Savannah's, or what was the Cellar, and repaint it and call it the Fat Fox, I don't think it would have had the same effect. You're not really fooling anybody. It's still the place that it was before, just with your colours on the wall.

So we're in this position where there's not really an ideal space, and the space that is available is pretty expensive. And it's weird, because we have a lot of vacancy in the downtown. There's a lot of empty spaces. Like, there's a whole, how many stories is the Bellanca building? Eleven stories? And it's completely empty. You get to thinking about this stuff, the bigger picture, and… why? If we have so much vacant space, why is it still so difficult and so expensive to rent?

Emma: So much of the space is dedicated to offices. Retail space is so minimal. We didn't really think about it until we were looking for something and then, oh my god, there's actually nothing.

Jeremy: Two facades of two city blocks, two and a half, actually have street-level retail space. The one that really irks me is the Gallery building, that building that was just being built when I moved to town in 2010. There isn't even a door onto the main street.

You've got this whole, huge chunk of a really high foot-traffic area of town, and it's just people working. You can see through the windows, people working at desks, on computers. There's not even an entrance on the main street into that side of the building.

Having retail space on the ground floor of buildings is a big deal, it's common sense in city planning across the board. You wonder how that happened. I don't know. You feel a little bit powerless.

Amid all of this – I'm going to come on to asking you what potential future plans might look like – but as we are entering food truck season, has that ever occurred as a viable, realistic thing to do?

Emma: We're super busy as it is, and we don't really want to run a food truck. That's not really what we want. We wanted the cafe, that's what we loved. It's a community space, people come in, they hang out.

Jeremy: The food trucks had, and have, a really important impact on the scene downtown. They've really helped to build this perception that downtown is a place to go where you can get different things to eat, and you can have a good time, you can kill a couple of hours. They are really important.

But there's something about a new brick-and-mortar thing. The extra permanence of that thing, I think, is a real confidence boost for people and potentially other businesses, you know?

One of the things that was really great about opening the Fox – and specifically opening it in Yellowknife – is you can see the opportunity to do something that has a really positive impact. And it's really gratifying to know that you can open a business and it can really change people's experience of the city.

The Fat Fox cafe's interior is pictured in an image from the restaurant's Facebook page

The Fat Fox cafe's interior is pictured in an image from the restaurant's Facebook page.

Since the Woodyard opened – they showed that you can put a ton of effort into something and do something really cool, and it will have a really big payoff for people. We still feel, even though our Plan A has slipped out of our grasp, like we're in a position to do that. We don't want to get distracted from it, I guess.

So therefore, what's Plan B?

Jeremy: Well… I don't know. It's some kind of fantasy variation of Plan A, I think. I don't know.

It's really tough, because I don't know what other space is available. We had talked on-and-off with Ecology North over the last year or so about this new building that they want to build. They were talking about putting a cafe or a coffee shop on the ground floor. It's quite tricky to manage the energy and water usage of a cafe and stuff, it's a lot higher than a regular office or even just a retail business. That would be quite tricky and you might end up blowing the building's sustainability goals. I really hope that project goes ahead, because it will be a really cool addition to the downtown. We're going to try to support them with that in whatever way we can… I don't really know what that look like.

But, yeah, I wish I could tell you, Ollie. I wish I could say there was a really solid Plan B but right now, we have to wait and see.

We've got to know a lot of people through the course of running the Fox, which is great, some of whom are property developers and landlords and things like that. Even though we gave 100 percent of effort to start the Fox and we only got two years in that location, I'm still glad that we did, because we showed people really clearly what we wanted to do. It wasn't like we did half of our vision in that place. We did it as well as we could. I think people maybe take us a bit more seriously when we say that we want to reopen, and we have a good business, and we want to make it work.

We know that there's a ton of people rooting for us and it really means an awful lot to us – half the reason why I wanted to come and chat to you is just because, especially with catering and seeing people, everybody is asking us when we're going to reopen and I'm starting to feel really bad about not being able to tell people anything.

The support that we're getting from people means an awful lot to us. And I guess I just want to say we're trying! We're trying to work something out. We're trying to make it work. Because we're really grateful.

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