Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How Jay Downton became a leader in Edmonton's creative economy

There’s a building at the corner of a busy west Edmonton intersection where Jay Downton likes to think he got his own version of an MBA. It’s roughly 7,000 vacant square feet and far dingier than any business school, with its peeling grey paint and dust – the sort of place that could pass easily for a school of hard knocks.

For 14 tough months in Downton’s life, it was a blues joint. From fall 2004 to about winter 2005, he and long-time business partner Clark Murray operated Blue Chicago restaurant and bar here. At first, Downton saw the concept as “easy and cool” – an extension of the pair’s knack for making a buck off other people’s fun. Going through school, they’d rent buses to run pub crawls, financing Downton’s education (Finance ’02).

There was just one hitch: “We didn’t like blues music.”

That mattered because, for Downton, passion leads the way in business. With Blue Chicago, “We had to deal with areas that weren’t our passion.” Like managing a large staff, booking bands, mingling with pleasant but usually stingy customers, manning the grill when HR issues arose, and 14-hour days, seven days a week. Downton had developed a love for analyzing and crunching numbers at NAIT and was more interested in strategizing growth than slinging pub grub.

Add a newly implemented smoking ban and an NHL lockout and “we had to pull chutes,” he says. Lesson learned: follow your passion.

Judging by the business empire Downton now backs and his growing stature as an entrepreneur, that passion hasn’t steered him off course.

Today, he’s co-founder and co-owner of the Nation Network, a group of nine hockey websites, including the seminal OilersNation.com, projected this year to net its highest revenue yet. He’s president and co-owner of Oodle Noodle, an Asian fast food chain poised for explosive growth. And, most recently, he’s co-owner of Little Brick, a central Edmonton café doubling as his business headquarters.

Linking them is the innovation and altruism that define Edmonton’s growing creative economy and his role as one of its leaders.

“Where I’m at now, failing at a young age was a good thing,” says the 34-year-old.

Back to the food business

But what exactly did Downton learn? you might ask.

In two out of three cases, he seems to be tempting fate by getting back into cafés and restaurants. Even with Oodle Noodle, he says, “the restaurant operations side still isn’t my cup of tea.” What’s different this time, in both cases, is that it’s not just about moving product to make a profit.

Clark Murray and Jay Downton outside the former home of J.B. Little, which they renovated into Little Brick Cafe and General Store.Case 1. Many Things to Many People: The Little Brick Story

As a concept, Little Brick Café and General Store, in Edmonton’s Riverdale neighbourhood just up from the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, is ambitious.

Opened in March in partnership with Nate Box, a restaurateur known as one of the city’s most creative, it’s meant to be many things to many people.

It’s a reliable source of quality coffee for the caffeine connoisseur, an artisanal general store for conscientious consumers seeking handmade soap, local grains and cordials bottled nearby and more, an important community hub and, upstairs, it’s business headquarters for Downton and Murray.

It’s also meant to support more than themselves and Box’s efforts to disrupt the café scene. The century-old building is the former home of J.B. Little, one of Edmonton’s industrial pioneers. Until the late 1950s, it backed onto his brickyard. Today, it’s a piece of city history, one that needed a white knight so it could be appreciated as such.

After talking the previous owner down from just over $600,000, Downton and his partners signed the papers and invested about $200,000 in badly needed renovations.

(From OilersNation.com blogger Wanye (sounds like Kanye) Gretz (aka Clark Murray), March 25, 2015: “[JB Little’s] once ballin [sic] house had been abandoned to tenants who had been throwing the party of the century for the past six years in it. The ol’ girl was in tough shape. Broken everything, pipes and wiring predating Jesus himself. A who’s who of asbestos. Plenty of reasons why no one wanted anything to do with buying it.”)

“By keeping these structures, they’re there to tell a story,” says Robert Geldart, Edmonton’s senior heritage planner. He looks forward to the opportunity to work with the group to designate the building and protect it from demolition in perpetuity. “It’s a very large contribution to the city and the neighbourhood.”

For Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Riverdale Community League president from 2010 to just after Little Brick opened, it’s a community builder: the sort of place they once wanted so badly that they ran their own café-style hangout in the community hall until it became too much work to handle. “We enthusiastically welcomed them,” says Moore-Kilgannon. “To have a space where you can bump into your neighbours and get to know people is a really fantastic amenity for us.”

Sonny Pham founded Oodle Noodle in 2005. With Downton's help, he hopes to grow it into a province-wide chain.Case 2. A Happy Sonny: The Oodle Noodle Story

Oodle Noodle is a corporation, with Jay Downton as president and co-owner, comprising eight locations and a staff of about 42, but it started from a friendship with Sonny Pham (Cook ’01), who immigrated to Edmonton in 1989 from Vietnam “with empty hands,” he says. “Nothing.”

Established in 2005, the fast food chain’s first location still operates on Whyte Avenue, blasting patrons with pop music and waves of heat off a grill filled with Asian fusion.

Before that, Pham cooked at another bar Murray co-owned, working on his business plan while sending money to family in Southeast Asia. Murray and Downton helped him with bookkeeping to set up that first shop.

That first store was only the beginning. As Pham began to grow the business, opening a second location in Edmonton’s west end in 2007, “he’d always say: ‘One day I’m going to need your help with something big.’”

Big, it turned out, meant a 460-square-metre (5,000-square-foot) noodle factory to feed a future chain of as many as 30 stores. He went to Downton and Murray to help open it in 2010. “We said, ‘OK, we don’t know anything about restaurants but we’ll learn,’” says Downton without irony. Taking a 30 per cent ownership stake, the pair put together a team of fast-serve restaurant experts, tried franchising, struggled with owners who couldn’t stay on brand or budget, and quickly pulled it all back under corporate control.

Along the way, the bond with Pham tightened. A frequent and adventurous traveller, Downton has visited Vietnam and seen “the value Sonny has created for his family back home. We were able to go and have dinner in houses Sonny helped them buy.”

Though Pham describes Downton and Murray as “good friends,” he admits he’s able to “fight” with them over business decisions. He sees this openness as a benefit of a relationship he attributes to his success. “If I didn’t have them, I don’t know how far I could have gone.”

This pleases Downton as much as the prospect of growth in the business. “We want Sonny’s machine on 24/7. If we’re doing that, we’ve got a happy Sonny. A happy Sonny is a happy us.”

A t-shirt from the "Bring Ryan Home" campaign - the precursor of OilersNation.com.The Ryan Smyth effect

None of this would be possible without Ryan Smyth. The creative economy wasn’t front of mind for Downton leading up to the launch of OilersNation.com, his and Murray’s flagship business, in 2007.

They were too busy lamenting the loss of the Oiler’s workhorse winger, just then traded to the New York Islanders. Smyth’s jersey now hangs in their office at Little Brick – a memento of what turned out to be part of the answer of what was to follow Blue Chicago.

At the time, Downton had fallen into his safety net: work in the local personal banking industry. He enjoyed it and was good at it but soon enough, “That itch to build something was kicking in.”

This time, though, Downton and Murray were determined to align their business and personal interests, and avoid both the literal and figurative blues. “What was it we liked?” Downton recalls thinking. “Internet. Hockey.”

The latter borders on obsession for Downton. He started at seven and still plays defense in local leagues as much for the dressing room banter and post-game beers as the ice time. He even has the look of a devotee: hair just long enough to curl up around a cap or out from under a helmet; broad shoulders; and a close but perpetual playoff beard. And, of course, he sees Ryan Smyth as one of the Oilers’ greats.

So, when Edmonton’s ill-fated Stanley Cup run ended in 2006 and the local hero was traded, Downton and Murray made their stand. “It was like we just sold our soul,” says the former. “So we started a protest [web]site called Bring Ryan Home.”

It was somewhat in jest but hardly a joke. They made shirts featuring Smyth’s face on a milk carton “missing” ad. “We sold 75. We thought we were Tommy Hilfiger.”

They set up a petition demanding Smyth’s return. In three weeks, the site attracted 32,000 visitors – the go-ahead they needed for their big idea: OilersNation.com. In 2007, the site launched as a blog modelled on PerezHilton.com in terms of its look, casual but authoritative tone and steady supply of content, with Murray and Adam Rozenhart, a local communications pro and a partner in the initial stages, writing daily.

“When OilersNation launches, we have zero visitors,” says Downton. For the first three months, “to create the illusion of traffic, the three of us would sit at our laptops and have seven different aliases and fabricate a conversation, trying to stay in character, remember who said what.”

“It was a passion project that we knew if we did right it could be big.”

By the end of the year, advertising revenues were just $3,000. It didn’t matter. “It was a passion project that we knew if we did right it could be big.”

In all they’ve done, Murray has always looked to Downton to help get things right. “I’ve never met a better businessman than Jay,” he says. Murray has relied on his partner’s ability to secure finances, attract investors, move projects from idea to execution, oversee a staff of more than 100 across the businesses and maintain an unrelentingly positive attitude. He sees Downton as the key to sustainability.

“You need to have a businessperson somewhere near the top to make sure that this thing runs effectively and turns a profit, and Jay’s that guy for our whole operation. The reason we are successful as a group is because of him.”

This year, OilersNation and the other eight sites across the Nation Network will bring in roughly $1 million, thanks to intense diversification and many levels of monetization.

Over the years, the company has built a stable of about 60 sports writers, including Jason Gregor (Radio and Television ’01). Page views of 185 million in the 2014-15 season drive ad sales and buyers to the Nation Gear catalogue of hockey-oriented clothing, a line they hope to grow to a $500,000 business alone. They’ll manage hockey drafts for businesses and are exploring podcasts-for-purchase featuring the likes of Gregor.

As a business born of an idea to leverage a significant part of Canadian culture, OilersNation made Downton and Murray early adopters of the broader creative economy ethos. In its 2013 Creative Economy Report, Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization) sees creativity as a pathway to growth, and culture as “a driver of development” that spins off social benefits.

This notion nudges aside products and services to make room for concepts. It has a real place in Edmonton, symbolic capital of the hands-on side of oil and gas. In 2012, urban studies expert and Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida ranked the city tenth among Canada’s most creative cities, placing it within a surging global market that doubled in value to $624 billion from the decade previous – good news for a numbers guy.

Unlike most entrepreneurs, Downton has no clear exit strategy. For now, all he wants is to “roll up hockey from an internet perspective.”

“I do it so I can grow something.”

Is Edmonton's creative economy ready to take off?Contributing to the creative economy

Downton thinks about Edmonton, the city where he was born, the same way. Boosterism is inherent to his businesses. Look for the cross-marketing on Oodle Noodle packaging, for example, that features the raised-fist OilersNation logo underscored by the phrase “Proudly YEG.”

Those efforts are buoyed by what Downton sees as a local “renaissance.” A decade ago, he watched ambitious creatives – artists, designers, restaurateurs – leave for places more receptive to their ideas.

“Now we’ve got civic champions that are putting in the effort to make Edmonton a great place. It’s starting to accelerate,” he says. “And it’s something I want to be involved in.”

Edmonton Enterprise acknowledged his leadership role this summer. Dedicated to expanding and diversifying the city’s economic growth, the organization included him on a creative-economy trade mission to Dubai as part of a team of about a dozen “movers and shakers in Edmonton,” says Lisa Baroldi, Edmonton Enterprise’s creative economy and aboriginal lead, who orchestrated the event.

The reason she chose Downton, who brought along Murray and Box, has to do with the nature of Edmonton’s creative economy. She defines it broadly. Traditionally thought of as art and heritage, today it includes architecture, design, food and unexpected sectors that nurture communities that push the economy in new directions.

She sees it in the efforts that go into running Oodle Noodle and the Nation Network, and in the way Downton and co. have positioned them as uniquely Edmonton “lifestyle brands.”

For her, the café is both a site of creative-community building and a fitting symbol. “They have this place called Little Brick and it’s kind of like they’re bricklayers themselves,” says Baroldi, “helping to build that foundation of the future of our city.”

Seeing the creative spaces and industries of Dubai has stoked Downton’s passion for plans he and Murray had filed “future.” They’re ready to realize a vision of a river valley studded with other gems like Little Brick and are exploring sites, potential partnerships and, in true Downton fashion, the next stages of growth.

That growth, however, will likely be only one measure of their impact on the city. A few weeks before the Dubai trip, sitting in the café with a coffee, Downton insists the success of Little Brick will lie in the events it hosts and the relationships those foster. “This whole project was not to make money for us,” he says. “There’s no ambitions to have a café in here to help us buy Lamborginis.”

Beyond the café’s old red door is a yard where he envisions those events, anything from summer brunches to outdoor movies. Like they did with the house, they’ve been sprucing things up.

They had a broad cedar deck and planters built. He, Murray and Box levelled and reseeded the lawn, took down diseased trees, and spread fresh soil in beds around the house. They didn’t need to do it on their own – these aren’t the crisis-management days of Blue Chicago. It was something they could do to make the place a little better, a little more inviting.

“Teamwork makes the dream work,” says Downton. “When we do a project we just roll up our sleeves and get heavily immersed in it. We’re all in.”

The good of the nation

Besides identifying new sources of revenue for OilersNation.com, Jay Downton uses the platform to boost incomes of local non-profits, raising more than $200,000 to date for causes including multiple sclerosis, YWCA, Earth Group and one-offs such as support for the family of the late Edmonton Police Service Const. Daniel Woodall.

Inner City Children’s Program director of programming Danielle Moffat sees Downton as key to her organization’s success. To serve nearly 250 kids in Edmonton’s core, it depends on donations and the efforts of people like him.

“He’s always willing to lend a hand,” Moffat says. In addition to fundraising through ticket sales to OilersNation parties, Downton helps plan other events such as the annual golf tournament and builds awareness through his connections.

“It’s heartwarming to know that somebody as successful as him can offer that kind of time to help out a little organization like us,” says Moffat. “It allows us to keep moving forward.”


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