Edmonton may be best known for industries like energy and government, but the city also boasts an entrepreneurial class that is burgeoning even as other sectors fluctuate.
The cityâs business community taps into a number of industries and economic drivers, giving it strength, said Edmonton Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Janet Riopel. And owners of those businesses are âvery attuned to whatâs going on,â she said.
âYou see the support local campaigns, and the Edmonton-made campaigns â weâre very proud of that,â Riopel said.
Other supporting factors include immigration to the city and loyalty to local businesses from area consumers.
Small businesses make up one-third of the GDP in Albertaâs capital region, and more than 70 per cent of the employees in the private sector are employed by small- and medium-sized businesses.
At the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, 84 per cent of members are small- to medium-sized enterprises, Riopel said.
âWhen you look at the percentages âŚ we know thatâs a direct reflection of the overall economy across our region, province and country,â she said.
Many ventures are started by people who used to work for others and either have been laid off or who are determined to pursue their passion.
Here are just a few local entrepreneurs whose pursuits are taking them off the beaten path.
Sara Gies and Eric Gibson âbonded over plantsâ â now, the pair run a business that sells houseplants and builds terrariums.
The owners of the Little Plant Shop started as a pop-up venture, selling at farmers markets and craft shows. Founded by Gies in 2012, her husband Gibson joined full-time in December when they decided to rent a second-floor shop on Whyte Avenue, east of 105 Street.
âWe try to have more of an artsy flair,â Gibson said. Besides selling plants, the shop holds terrarium-making workshops in its space.
The pair each have backgrounds in botany, both having studied plants at Olds College. Gies has additional experience as a florist, and Gibson was a grower at the Muttart Conservatory for seven years.
Their combined knowledge gives customers unique help when it comes to buying plants and making terrariums. While department stores and other retailers also sell houseplants, they donât advise buyers as to what plants work best for their home, Gibson said.
Some plants sold at the shop are grown from cuttings curated from the coupleâs personal collection, while others are shipped in from B.C. and California.
Gibson believes part of the shopâs appeal comes from the atmosphere, and the community it offers to the botanical-minded. They donât advertise much, relying mostly on word of mouth to grow and to get the name out.
âPlants have always been popular, but we find that the younger generation is sure getting on board â theyâve almost become plant-obsessed,â he said. âWeâre like, âJoin the club,â because our house is a jungle.â
Indoor dog park owner Gabriel Tay says she feels like a referee all the time â only the players she supervises are of the four-legged variety.
Tay founded Lucky Donkey when she couldnât find an indoor play space for her own dogs: Lucky, a Shih Tzu who died in 2007, and Donkey, a chihuahua who sometimes joins Tay in the park. When she first started, there were no indoor dog parks in the city, Tay said.
Tayâs park has been an indoor alternative to off-leash parks since it opened in April 2016. Located at 79 Avenue and 104 Street, owners can supervise their pets as they play or use the facilityâs dog-sitting service. Force-free dog trainers hold sessions at the park as well.
No-choke collars are allowed in Lucky Donkey â the centre emphasizes positive reinforcement when working with dogs. Dogs must be up-to-date on their vaccines; if older than seven months, they must be spayed and neutered as well.
Although she loves the work, Tay said the business has been struggling for the past year. Summers are usually slower, but this year was especially slow, she said. Sheâs started an online fundraiser and hopes to host more training clinics and other dog-focused events to support the rent fees.
âIâd like to make it work no matter what,â Tay said.
Outdoor dog parks should be part of an urban canineâs routine while the indoor version can take stress off the owners, Tay said. Owners donât have to pick anything up off the ground, from droppings to suspicious treats.
The park admits only small dogs on Saturday mornings for those that are afraid of their large counterparts.
âI didnât realize how much I was going to love all the dogs that come in here â theyâre my dogs,â Tay said.
Debra Bourne has changed the fortunes of Where Faeries Live. When she bought it four years ago, the pagan supply shop â think spells, ingredients, and other trinkets â was on the verge of bankruptcy.
âI moved it right away to this location,â she said of the rear workshop space of the Old Strathcona store. Established 21 years ago, the shop had previously made its home along 124 Street in Westmount.
âIâve been a Wiccan for 25 years,â said Bourne, who first started visiting the shop in 2000. âI had searched for many years before I found a spirituality that seemed to fit for me.â
Bourne bought the shop after being laid off from the federal public service during a restructuring. Since the change in ownership and location, business has been booming.
âItâs been growing every year,â Bourne said. âWe see about a 25 per cent increase every year, even during the downturn.â
She speculates that the economic downturn may have even helped people find the shop.
â(In difficult) economic times, people are often looking for ways of increasing their happiness âŚ and so they turn to products like ours.â
Her most popular products include crystals, herbs, and Tarot decks. Some of it, like a selection of spell candles, are made in-house.
But like many niche retailers, key to the shopâs success is the community and its use of the workshop space. Rituals, classes, meditations and other social events have booked up the spot right until Christmas.
Located just off Whyte Avenue at 104 Street and 79 Avenue, Bourne says there is the chance the building could be bought and sold as part of a revitalization project but she hopes to keep Where Faeries Live just where it is.
âWeâre planning on staying here basically as long as the building is here.â
âI never really played any board games,â Jason Wynn admits from his boutique board game store Apt to Game. That all changed when his former career as a millwright was interrupted.
âWhen I knew I was getting laid off, I knew I would get a small severance,â he said. âI was talking to a friend and we thought weâd open up a video-game store because we both really liked video games.â
But when Wynn started building a business model, he realized the market just wasnât there. Enter the board-game explosion. A revival of interest in the low-tech social diversion over the last few years has seen cafes and other stores dedicated to the hobby pop up around Edmonton.
Since starting the business, heâs brought on a few partners including his wife. Wynn first launched Apt to Game online only in June 2016 but, at the behest of suppliers, opened a physical location on Calgary Trail in December 2016.
âBusiness exploded like 3,000 per cent,â says Wynn. âAnd itâs probably doubled since then.â
The real struggle is picking the right stock â with only a small operating capital, Apt to Game must predict which products will be popular and purchase appropriately.
The gamble doesnât always pay off.
âRight now weâre stuck on a big pile of games that was supposed to be popular but turned out not to be.â
Wynn says that besides fulfilling a longtime entrepreneurial itch, the shop has put him at the centre of a community heâd never been a part of before. With tables set up in the front entranceway, Wynn often finds himself included among the regular board game geeks.
âTheyâre not really our customers. Theyâre more our friends.â
âOur family had shopped here for years before we bought it,â said Chantel Mernickle from behind the central counter of Treasured Memories in southeast Edmonton. âI had even applied for a job here in high school.â
âDidnât get it,â she admits.
Mernickle has now operated the scrapbook store with sister K.C. Benson and parents Daryl and Laurie Benson for 12 years.
Mernickle and her sister say the family has always been creative, with each member bringing their own unique taste and talents to the business. Papers and tags designed by their father sit among other carefully selected products, many arranged in the bookshelves and antique furniture pieces that fill the 4,200-square-foot space.
âWe try not to make it look too warehousey with all the wire-racking,â said Mernickle.
In the back, more than a dozen tables are arranged for individual use or for classes and social âcropsâ such as P.M.S. (Pizza, Margaritas and Scrapbooking), a monthly event appealing to the mostly female customer base.
âMy favourite (part of running the shop) would be the crops and the carnivals,â K.C. Benson said. But group activities like crops are also a large part of the storeâs success.
âWe wouldnât still be around if we werenât offering those,â says Mernickle.
After some difficulty five years ago, Mernickle says business has been doing well and is on an incline. Just last year, Treasured Memories re-launched its online store.
For Mernickle, who originally thought of opening a flower shop, the experience has been incredibly rewarding.
âCrafting is my passion,â she said. âI love all forms of creating and crafting and being around it all day, getting to shop for it âŚ getting to create and craft and inspire and be involved in peopleâs lives that share that on a daily basis, I love it.â