Let them eat brunch.
In Whitehorse, a growing class of urban professionals is driving a wave of savvy new businesses.
By Eva Holland
Photo by Daren Gallo
It’s 11am. I’ve got a champagne flute in hand – a splash of orange juice leavening the bubbly – and I’ve been staring at the menu at the Burnt Toast Café for the past five minutes, trying to choose between the huevos rancheros, the croissant French toast, or the smoked salmon eggs benny. In the end, I opt for the veggie scramble: free range eggs, spinach, goat cheese and red onion served with homemade hash browns and thick slices of rustic, grainy toast.
Five, 10, 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have had to make such tough breakfast choices. It wouldn’t have been any more complicated than “How do you want your eggs?” and “Bacon or sausage?” But now the boozy brunch phenomenon, made famous in Manhattan, has arrived in the Yukon, along with a host of other southern-style urban luxuries. The face of the population is changing, and with it, so is the face of Yukon commerce: A growing class of young urban professionals is driving a wave of new businesses in the capital city. Hello, Asian fusion. Hello, gluten-free options. Hello, quinoa salad. Welcome to the new Whitehorse.
Whitehorse is growing, and fast. From 2006 to 2011, the city’s population rose by nearly 14 per cent – more than double the national average. In the same time span, the under-18 demographic has been shrinking, so the growth isn’t the result of a baby boom; it’s from new arrivals, what the statistical analysis types refer to as in-migration. The new arrivals vary, demographically, but a solid core is made up of young white-collar professionals, with money to spend and tastes formed by their time in Canada’s southern urban centres. And with these migrants have come the new businesses: a dumpling bar, a pair of Starbucks franchises, a cupcake store, an array of “ethnic” restaurants, and more.
Burnt Toast, the site of my brunch conundrum, is the epitome of the new trend. It opened in 2010, offering a mix of weekend brunch, upscale weekday lunches (think roasted red pepper and warm barley salad with maple balsamic vinaigrette), and a relaxed evening atmosphere that was distinct from the vibe at the city’s many sports-focused bars: Patrons could eat a late dinner, or sip glasses of wine and graze on a range of appetizers, including the café’s signature truffle oil French fries.
Current owner and chef Vanessa Willett took over last March. She’s been in Whitehorse for 22 years, working largely in the retail and food-and-drink industries. She and her partner, David Duguay, bought Burnt Toast because they saw that the business was doing something new, something different – and that locals were latching on to the change.
Willett knows her brunch is a riff on a down-south phenomenon. “That’s what happens in the city, you know? People line up for brunch when you go down south. I’m always shocked.” But now she’s seeing Yukoners embrace the trend. “We’re packed for brunch, absolutely every weekend,” she says. “It’s definitely a city kind of brunch here. We try to push the champagne and all that stuff, sort of a Montreal kind of brunch, where people do go and they drink.”
Willett’s customers know what they want. The offerings include plenty of vegetarian items, and the café is working on adding more gluten-free menu selections, too, due to demand. Burnt Toast sources as many ingredients locally as possible and uses exclusively free range eggs. According to Willett, her diners aren’t shy about asking about the provenance of their food. “One thing I’ve noticed about people in Whitehorse, they really do know what they want, and they’re not afraid to ask, and they’re not afraid to complain.”
I ask Willett whether her café has a typical customer. “I hate to use the term yuppie,” she says, “but it’s sort of a young, urban kind of thing, people with a bit of disposable income. Mainly. I mean, we get all kinds in here but I think that tends to be what it is. You know, people with a bit of money, and they like to go out and have wine and that sort of thing. It’s a good demographic.”
Next door to the Burnt Toast Café is another new business: Kustom Kakes and Designs, known informally around town as “the cupcake shop.” Owner and one-woman baking machine Kim Hadden fills her display case with artfully-crafted, icing-covered cupcakes daily – including gluten-free and dairy-free options – and, she says, “I sell out every day.”
The store opened in March 2010 with the cupcakes as the main event, but when Hadden took over in May 2011 she also expanded the custom cake design side of the business. Now she provides made-to-order cakes for children’s birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, and more. “I do everything,” she says. “They just keep coming back.”
I ask Hadden about the weirdest request she’s ever gotten. “Blue Oreo cookie icing,” she answers. I ask her if she ever gets requests for naughty or salacious cakes. “I have a whole book for that,” she says, laughing.
Hadden’s a born-and-raised Yukoner, and like her neighbour Vanessa Willett she’s seen a change in Whitehorse’s population, and in the resulting market demands, in recent years. Twenty years ago, who could have imagined that an artisanal cupcake store would sell out daily, in the Yukon? “I think it’s people moving to town,” she says. “People moving up from wherever, and they have their own ideas, and they try it out. That’s all you can do is try it out. Change is good.”
In a place like the Yukon, filled with rivers begging to be paddled and mountains waiting to be climbed, it’s no surprise to find outdoor gear and clothing for sale. But what might come as a surprise is the sheer scale of the city’s go-to sports and wilderness outfitter. On Main St. in downtown Whitehorse, an interconnected complex of retail stores fills more than 20,000 square feet – occupying most of a city block. The complex is home to three stores: Coast Mountain Sports, Sportslife and Sports- lodge, all members of the Hougen Group of Companies. Until this past spring, a fourth outfit, Board Stiff, shared the space too, but now it’s moved across the street into a spacious 5,000-square-foot storefront of its own. The remaining three stores have expanded to fill the gap.
Sportslodge caters mainly to the hunting and fishing crowd; Sportslife sells running shoes, NHL-branded jerseys and fan-wear, bathing suits and other mainstream sports apparel. Coast Mountain offers tents, hiking boots, heavy-duty outdoor performance gear and the latest camping gadgets, while Board Stiff serves up fashions drawn from skate, surf, and snowboard culture. The name of the game at all four stores is spendy brand-name clothing, and all four are doing a brisk business. “Things are going well,” says Craig Hougen. “The Yukon consumer is very discerning, but they also understand value. People are willing to pay for good equipment because they’re actually using it… People here know a good tent from a poor tent.”
The Hougen family has been in business in Whitehorse for decades, and Craig Hougen has definitely seen a demographic shift in recent years. “One of the changes,” he points out, “is the advent of the internet and it allowing us to work without respect to geography.” In other words: Some of the newcomers are independent, self-employed professionals, who are choosing to live in Whitehorse while much of their clientele remains down south. “For young people now,” says Hougen, “quality of life is much more important than it was in the previous generation. And we’ve now got the luxury of choice.”
Despite lingering global economic troubles, it’s clear that the people who choose Whitehorse have money to spend. Last year, the Yukon set a record for retail sales in the territory: Yukoners spent more than $600 million dollars in 2011, up more than 10 per cent from 2010. (That compared to a nationwide spending increase of four per cent.) Preliminary numbers suggest that Yukon spending is set to rise again in 2012.
Tucked away in the Horwood Mall, at 1st and Main, Climate Clothing has been getting its share of that spending, too. Run by mother-daughter team Lorraine and Ciara Stick, the store has been open since 2007. It sells eco-friendly clothing from Canadian manufacturers – think organic cotton and alternative fibres like soy, bamboo and hemp.
Lorraine tells me that her products have been gaining in popularity during the five years she’s been open. “I’ve noticed a big change, for sure,” she says. “Yukoners are… I would say the majority of them are really eco-friendly… They love it when we tell them it’s Canadian-made.” The store draws a wide array of customers, but “the key group,” according to the Sticks, ranges from people in their early 20s to those who are about 40. Those customers include plenty of new Yukon arrivals. “Was it yesterday, or Friday?” Ciara says, recalling a woman who’d just moved to town and was thrilled to stumble across Climate Clothing. “She was really excited that we carry a couple of brands she really liked. She thought she wouldn’t be able find them here.”
I polish off my mimosa and pay my tab. Brunch at the Burnt Toast Café is winding down for another week. Researching this story has me thinking back to my own first visit to Whitehorse – and my subsequent decision to uproot and move here, three years ago. I’d expected the Yukon’s natural beauty when I arrived, but what I hadn’t counted on were the urban perks: The restaurant and retail scene was miles closer to a southern urban experience than I’d assumed it would be, and for an Ottawa-bred city kid like myself, contemplating a move away from everything I’d known, that was a major plus.
All the new arrivals may be driving the creation of some new businesses, it’s true. But it’s a cycle, not a one-way street: Those businesses, in turn, are helping to make Whitehorse into a draw for even more new arrivals, ambitious young professionals whose migration North will help the Yukon prosper for years to come.