Niki Mckenzie has a different take on the philosophy of business. She likes that not too many Yellowknifers know where her café is – or that it even exists.
In fact, she actively tries to keep it that way.
“I guess I kind of self-identify as a pirate and having some kind of hidden treasure map is just very appealing to me,” Mackenzie says. “I like things that are a little bit secret, a little bit cozy.
“Did you ever have like a clubhouse as a kid or a secret fort or something? It’s like that, but with good coffee.”
For two years, Mckenzie has been the operator of Mario’s Marvellous Movie Emporium, a modest houseboat coffee shop that offers residents of Yellowknife a space to drink coffee roasted by Mckenzie, eat handmade goodies, and hang out.
The café is run entirely by donation and there is never a set schedule – or even a guarantee it will actually be open, save for the flying of a green flag over the roof.
“That’s the best way to tell,” Mckenzie says. “If the flag is up, come on by. If the flag is down, you can still come by. It may or may not be open – it’s hard to say.”
The idea for the elusive houseboat hotspot was conceived by husband and wife duo Frans Barnard and Heather Hannah.
Having moved from Kenya to Yellowknife, Mckenzie says Barnard wanted a different space for people to get together and socialize.
“Mario’s is a community space,” Mckenzie explains. “We happen to have very good espresso, and that’s an excellent bonus, but that’s not really the basis of what this space is.
“This is a space for people to gather… family, friends.”
Since taking over the endeavour from Barnard, Mckenzie has hosted a number of events on the houseboat: the likes of yoga classes, art workshops, stand-up comedy nights, and musical performances.
On Sunday evenings, Mckenzie – a chef by trade – cooks community meals for anyone who arrives with a plate and cutlery.
She has borrowed a wall tent from a friend to house extra seating and pop-up shops for other Yellowknife businesses.
A trapper came by one day and sold his furs from the tent. Last Sunday, Fish on the Bay held a pop-up fish shop.
“I’ve got some local potters interested in doing a pop-up out there, as well,” Mckenzie adds. “It’s just it’s another way for communities to gather.”
The guiding principle of bringing people together rather than turning a profit makes Mario’s unique, Mckenzie says.
“Having shared experiences is really important to build the community,” she says.
“I’ve got families that come and I’m watching their kids grow up. I get lots of drawings from the kids, which I think is excellent.
“It’s nice to touch base with people I wouldn’t normally cross paths with in my day-to-day life. It’s all about networking and making those connections.”
The challenges of running an off-grid houseboat café are plentiful, Mckenzie points out.
“I’ve had my pellet stove fail, my propane fail, my batteries freeze, my water pipes burst,” she says, rattling them off.
Even getting to the café can be an obstacle.
“In the wintertime is not too bad – we can use a vehicle to get out here,” Mckenzie continues. “In the summertime, I’m loading my canoe with jugs of water. It’s an interesting balancing act.”
Mckenzie now finds herself running through more cleaning products than ever before to combat Covid-19. The tiny space, ordinarily packed with people cramming in for the Mario’s experience, has been subject to the same social distancing rules as everywhere else.
Eventually, Mckenzie hopes Mario’s can grow and evolve.
“I would like to see more people reaching out to use the space because it is available,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m going to be the face of it forever, but I think it’s important that it sticks around.
“I think it would just be a shame to lose the space.”
And as for the coffee shop’s eccentric name?
“This wasn’t always a houseboat – this originally was a shack and it was a shack owned by a pilot called Mario,” Mckenzie says. “The Marvellous Movie Emporium came about when Frans blew a snow wall and had a projector outside under an insulated blanket and use it to show movies one year.
“The name has just stuck; I personally refer to it as the coffee ship.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.