A self-described “prolific entrepreneur” and co-founder of Yellowknife’s Copperhouse restaurant won the city’s 2019 Win Your Space business incubation contest.
Liang Chen, who already operates an immigration consultancy and ventures in fishing and tourism, was declared the winner for his plan to open a new fish restaurant in downtown Yellowknife.
Chen calls his restaurant Fat Fish, echoing the Fat Fox – a separate, well-known Yellowknife catering business which formerly operated a downtown café.
“My concept is a fish restaurant that serves only Great Slave Lake fresh fish. The restaurant will also serve as a retail spot where local Yellowknifers can buy fish,” Chen said in a video filmed for the contest, pitching his idea to a panel of judges.
This year’s Win Your Space was due to culminate in a grand final webcast live at City Hall on Thursday.
However, the City scrapped the live finale last week after confirming just three contenders had completed all the steps to qualify for consideration.
Entrants are asked to attend a series of workshops and complete detailed business plans. Previous years’ contenders have described the process as onerous but “worth it” if you win.
The top prize is a year’s free leased space at a downtown location, while other prizes can knock thousands of dollars off the cost of opening up in Yellowknife.
In a news release issued at 5:12pm on Friday – not ordinarily a prime-time spot for news seeking attention – the City confirmed Fat Fish had won and announced YZF Tech Repairs, a phone repair service, had taken second place.
Phage Therapy, the only other entrant to reach the final phase, was not mentioned and appeared to receive nothing.
The City’s news release named Fat Fish the winner but otherwise provided no detail about the restaurant and did not mention Chen by name, though plenty of information was available in Chen’s video, posted to the City’s website alongside those of eight other semi-finalists earlier in the summer.
“After evaluating each business plan, the jury deliberated and declared Fat Fish the grand prize winner,” the City’s news release stated. The City did not immediately post news of Chen’s win to its social media channels.
Chen will receive a year’s free leased space up to the value of $2,500 per month; up to $10,000 in start-up funding from the NWT’s Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC); and “many other prizes,” the City wrote.
Where exactly Chen plans to open the restaurant was not immediately confirmed.
Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce – which runs the contest alongside the City and BDIC – said: “We look forward to welcoming Fat Fish and YZF Tech Repairs to the Yellowknife business community.”
Chen, a Yellowknife resident for four years, recently appeared before city councillors to promote an entirely different project of his. He hopes to turn an old communications installation in Kam Lake into a series of aurora viewing platforms.
He is one of several co-owners of Copperhouse, an upscale Yellowknife restaurant which opened in April 2018.
Fat Fish, Chen said in his video, will appeal to Chinese and Japanese tourists while “adding to the vibrant Yellowknife culinary scene.”
“As a co-owner of Copperhouse, I fully understand the challenges,” he said, listing a shortage of skilled labour, high utility costs, and high food costs as obstacles to be dealt with.
Liang Chen appears in his Win Your Space video uploaded to YouTube.
“I believe this venture will be successful because I already have experience in restaurant operations,” Chen continued.
“I believe my business concept, along with the resource I am able to put into it, will create a very successful and long-term sustainable business.
“I think there are future opportunities with this venture … we can revitalize the entire commercial fishing industry in the territory.”
Food for thought
This year’s contest marks the second time in its three-year history that Win Your Space has been won by an existing restaurant owner looking to try something new in the downtown.
In 2017, the contest’s inaugural year, Seiji Suzuki – owner of Sushi North – won the contest with Japain, a Japanese-style bakery, which has since opened in the Centre Square Mall.
Last year, Mary Kelly won the contest with Music Space, a set of studios and open spaces designed to promote all forms of music in the city.
Just three entries reaching this year’s final stage has led to suggestions that the format, or frequency, of Win Your Space should be re-examined for future years.
Both Win Your Space judge Rob Warburton and Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio the contest requires an evaluation and may subsequently only take place every two years.
“It’s not just a game,” said Alty last week. “Sometimes, I think we can think of it like that, but it’s basically a life-change to get into business.
“Sometimes people realize they are not ready yet. Making sure you are ready to launch a business is better than rushing into it.”