Why Not’s Levi Biddlecombe and Die Pie’s Neil Royale on loss and new beginnings
Before the pandemic, Levi Biddlecombe (Culinary Arts ’11) and Neil Royale (Culinary Arts ’09) were in good places in their professional lives. Biddlecombe owned and operated ?!Why Not¡¿, an eclectic café and bar near Edmonton’s lively Whyte Ave. Die Pie, a downtown vegan pizzeria, was Royale’s creation, along with a vegan café called Pêche, a dozen blocks east.
Both restaurants had survived and thrived more than a couple of years – an achievement in an industry that separates wheat from chaff with ruthless efficiency, then keeps only the most robust seeds.
But by the end of 2020, everything changed. For Royale, foot traffic lost to the pandemic was primarily to blame for the closure of Die Pie, then Pêche. For Biddlecombe, it was a fire, likely electrical, fed by the sawdust insulating the old building’s attic. For both, the effect was the same: dreams of running their own kitchens, a first for each young chef, were reduced to ashes.
“I was pretty off for a solid six months,” says Biddlecombe, now 30. Royale, approaching his 40s, was too, and for a little longer.
Then came salvation – in the form of a food court.
Now, on an early summer day in 2022, they’re sitting on the patio of 5th St. Food Hall in downtown Edmonton, where they run new businesses. Neither looks “off.” Royale’s black smock is spotless, a pocket on the sleeve tidily lined with pens. Biddlecombe radiates an energy that speaks to how he'd rather be in the kitchen cooking and creating, not just talking about it.
But who wouldn’t? Second chances – particularly in a business as tough as this, particularly in a persisting pandemic, and even more particularly when those second chances are probably better than the first – are gifts that no one should take for granted.
Food hall – not food court
To call 5th St. a food court may be unfair, but not wholly inaccurate. When you think “food court,” you typically envision a couple hundred tables in a mall, many covered in trays of abandoned garbage, surrounded by a perimeter of the usual suspects: Corporate Burger, Sandwich Inc., Chicken-and-Taco Conglomerate, lone but endearing Mom and Pop.
Fifth St. is not typical. It features comfortable seating, classy earth tones, and a lounge-y look owing to a lengthy bar. There’s a patio out front that Royale enthusiastically calls “really bumpin’”; it’s somehow secluded from but also looking onto the street, separated from it by wood and wrought iron, and sheltered by cheery yellow umbrellas.
“You get the food-court variety with a restaurant experience,” says Biddlecombe. That is, patrons order from any of several separate kitchens, including his – backing the brands Backstairs Burger and Tortilla Samurai Mexican-Asian tacos (both co-owned with longtime-business partner chef Rob Wick) – and Royale’s, which supplies vegan creations for his southern-inspired Seitan’s and plant-based taqueria Sin Carne.
Visitors have their meals and drinks brought to their fancy, debris-free tables by servers.
“This is like a pimped-out food court,” says Royale. “Actually, a ‘bougie’ food court,” he adds with a laugh.
Cooking as a calling
Getting here, however, was no laughing matter. It involved the chefs losing their businesses, and something of themselves with those.
Cooking is key to their identities. Royale remembers being the kid to elevate family Friday pizza nights by making the crust himself instead of buying it. Going to NAIT after high school “was fun – way better for me than if I had to go study with books and stuff.”
Biddlecombe has a physique that hints at a path not taken. He was a talented football player in high school, attracting scholarship offers from colleges. “There was always something in the back of my mind that was like, ‘That’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life,’” he says. “When I wasn’t at [football] practice, I was at home baking.”
“Running your own business is gratifying. Not so much when you work for other people.”
Also lost with those businesses, potentially at least, was creative autonomy. Both chefs built their careers in part by working for others. Biddlecombe reinvented a popular Edmonton cajun restaurant, for example, and Royale had run the gamut of hotels, restaurants, even camp kitchens. They knew it would be hard to go back happily.
“Running your own business is gratifying,” says Royale. “Not so much when you work for other people.”
Faced with that prospect, or just with impenetrable uncertainty, Royale fell into depression. “Luckily, my daughter was just born,” he says. His first, she was two months old when the restaurants closed. “So she helped me with it, along with my wife. She’s the light of my life.
“I’d say she got us through that year.”
Less is more
Through various connections, Royale and Biddlecombe found their ways to 5th St., which was preparing to open as a first-of-its-kind concept in Edmonton. After submitting successful applications to buy in, they were back in business by early October 2021. It was an ideal point of re-entry.
“We were able to come in here with dramatically less capital than you would need to get the brand off the ground and serving our food full time [in our own buildings],” says Biddlecombe of he and Wick.
“You don’t need, like, $100,000 or more [that you'd need] to build your own restaurant," adds Royale.
To their advantage, they came into their ventures with brands that were known before the pandemic. Royale had already begun working with seitan, a meat-like wheat gluten product, offering dishes under “Seitan’s Disciples.” But 5th St., where the chefs unavoidably inspire each other in common prep areas, also stoked culinary imaginations.
“I was like, ‘The city is really missing vegan tacos,’” says Royale. “Everytime there’s a vegetarian option, there’s cheese on it. I saw a [gap] in the market. Plus, I love tacos.”
Biddlecombe, too, channelled energy into experimenting and iterating that may have otherwise gone to managing leases, front of house, point-of-sale systems and other logistics handled by 5th St. owners, JustCook Kitchens.
“We’ve got dozens and dozens of ideas – lots of concepts we want to test,” he says. “Being able to constantly be in the lab creating whatever the next hit is going to be is what we want to be doing full time.”
The chefs acknowledge that the food hall is not a recipe for guaranteed success – anything can spoil if improperly handled. But, in addition to the cost benefits, they feel it might represent a direction that food and food lovers are headed. Diners are ready for Food Court 2.0.
“People like variety, but people are also getting more foodie-forward,” says Biddlecombe. They still like burgers, but they want the meat to be an in-house blend, the tomato to be heirloom, the bun to be fresh sourdough. Or whatever – as long as it’s somehow unique. “They want a variety of locally done stuff by chefs that know what they’re doing, that are creative.”
Royale agrees. What’s more, he feels the pandemic changed tastes. “People might not want as much fancy food [anymore],” says Royale. “People want bang for their buck.” (Which, he admits, hurts when costs have increased while his prices haven’t.)
Regardless of guarantees, 5th St. is where Biddlecombe and Royale have been able to get back to not just cooking, but to dreaming again.
“Growth is definitely going to happen this year or next year.”
As the afternoon traffic picks up and the separation between street and patio becomes less apparent, the chefs reflect on their satisfaction with where they are, and on whether they’re content with having taken this chance on starting over differently.
“I would say I’m happy,” says Royale. He likes the food hall concept and would set up another outlet in a new one as well if given the opportunity. And he’s not ruling out a new brick-and-mortar restaurant, using his current space as a testing ground. From his perspective, seitan’s disciples await him. “Growth is definitely going to happen this year or next year.”
Biddlecombe never doubted he’d bounce back, but he’s surprised that it happened within a year. Still, he doesn’t quite share his colleague’s satisfaction. At least not in the same way.
“I don’t think that content is in my vocabulary,” says Biddlecombe.
But he seems like a person who is at least comfortable being in a state of constant striving, who enjoys it, even. For Biddlecombe, 5th St. is the place to launch an empire of ideas, in which he might create, hand off execution to staff, then create more. All that matters is that the ideas keep coming, and that they have a place to happen.
Like Royale, Biddlecombe has kids who motivate him, an eight-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. He sees a legacy developing from what he’s started at 5th St. and hopes it makes them proud of him, of what he’ll have built despite what he lost. In the meantime, “as long as we’re able to survive making a living, cooking our food, that’s all I need for the most part.”
Perhaps like 5th St. customers, who visit for the excitement of not knowing what to expect, contentment will be obvious when he sees it.