Eight years ago, Kelly Black and Jayme MacFayden identified an opportunity to bring something new to Calgary’s dining scene and turned what was meant to be a summer stopover in the city into the creation of BMeX Restaurant Group — a growing collection of independent neighbourhood restaurants.
The pair of Kamloops, B.C. natives have played key roles in the evolution of Calgary’s independent restaurant landscape with their intimate, experiential style of hospitality — garnering a bevy of awards along the way. In 2015, Black and MacFayden were named among Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 and their restaurant, Native Tongues, was named Best New Alberta Restaurant by The Globe and Mail, took third in Avenue Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list and claimed top honours in Huffington Post’s list of Calgary’s best new restaurants.
Despite setting out on disparate career paths, the pair of business and Alife partners gravitated toward the restaurant industry. In his past life, Black owned a production company in Kamloops, but the sporadic nature of the business always kept him working in restaurants. For MacFayden, “It was the human aspect of hospitality that kept me coming back.”
This love of the industry drew the couple to Victoria, B.C. and later Turks and Caicos where they worked as servers at a resort. When it closed for the summer season, Black and MacFayden headed to Calgary in search of work. Upon arriving in the city in 2005, the pair astutely identified Calgary’s lack of independent restaurants and recognized a chance to make their dream of restaurant ownership a reality.
“We thought if we were going to go back to B.C. and [open a small restaurant], you can get lost [in the crowd] pretty easily. But if we stayed in Calgary, we saw an opportunity to give something cool to the city that it didn’t have yet and a better chance of standing out,” says MacFayden.
BMeX Group’s first restaurant, Una Pizza + Wine — a small, casual-fine-dining concept — opened its doors in 2009 and was an instant success, quadrupling its projected sales in the first year. The restaurant offers Mustard Green Salad with double-smoked bacon, walnuts, Grana Padano and shallot vinaigrette ($15); the Beltline pizza featuring double-smoked bacon, fennel sausage, smoked mozzarella and maple syrup ($22); tagliatelle pasta with San Marzano tomato sauce, crushed basil and shaved Grana Padano ($15); and Tiki pizza with prosciutto cotto, shaved pineapple, San Marzano tomato sauce, Friulano and jalapeno oil ($19). “I think [Una] kind of opened doors for people — other restaurateurs in the city looked at Una and said ‘if these guys can do it, we can do it,’” Black notes. “Now, the average restaurant that opens in the city, the shift has been more towards that style of dining — shared plates, loud, tight, more current music. [After we launched] we just saw an explosion in the city and it hasn’t stopped.”
Una’s success also inspired its owners to bring another new concept to Calgary with the launch of the city’s first true cocktail bar and Spanish tapas restaurant, Ox & Angela, in 2011.
The young company has recently gone through a notable growth spurt, which is particularly impressive in light of the recent state of Alberta’s economy. Hot on the heels of opening Native Tongues — a traditional taqueria — in June 2015, 2016 saw BMeX grow its stable of restaurants with two new concepts and launch an outpost of Una Pizza + Wine in Saskatoon. BMeX Group’s latest concepts include an expansive takeaway concept under the Una banner, as well as a traditional French wine bar called Frenchie.
Despite having vastly different concepts, all of BMex Group’s restaurants share a common philosophy focused on sourcing high-quality ingredients and being mindful of their impact on the environment. To this end, all of the restaurants are LEAF-certified (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Food Service) and make use of several products produced right in the city by YYC Growers and Distributors.
This hands-on team also owns a bee farm comprised of three different colonies of bees, which ensures the bees producing honey for the company’s brands are protected in their ecosystem. This past year, MacFayden also opened her own garden next to Ox & Angela. The 1,300-sq.-ft. urban garden is the largest of its kind in the inner city and helps supply produce to BMeX’s restaurants.
Managing such a large and varied roster is no small task for two people. “We’ve gone from 90 employees to about 250 and from a sales point of view will go from about $7 million to over $15 million, so it’s a big adjustment,” says Black. “With the responsibilities of the company more than doubling, that’s a big thing to take on for just the two of us,” he adds.
Black and MacFayden have developed a strong team to help ensure everything keeps running smoothly. “We’re lucky that we have really great teams at all of the restaurants…we sit down with each of our managers at each of our businesses once a week and review everything from service and food to all of our numbers,” explains MacFayden. “We also set goals for them for the week and each week, the goals that were set the previous week are reviewed.” Their style of management is highly focused on team-building and transparency — a strategy the duo feels empowers their employees and encourages growth. “A huge part of our job is developing the people below us and helping them grow and whether they stay with our company forever or not, they’ll have those skills they learned from working with us that they can take with them for the rest of their career,” she adds.
This approach to management, combined with the restaurant group’s take on hospitality, have undoubtedly contributed to the success of its restaurants. And this isn’t just talk — BMeX Group alumni such as Steve Smee and Aja Lapointe now own and operate Ten Foot Henry — one of Calgary’s most buzzed-about restaurants; Brett McDermott owns and operates Our Daily Brett; and Cody Willis, operating partner and chef at Native Tongues, has opened his own restaurant concept.
Improvement, growth and general community building are driving forces behind everything Black and MacFayden have done since arriving in Calgary. “Kelly and I always look at our city and our industry as if we want to keep it growing — we don’t want to stay stagnant — so if we see a hole in the market or an opportunity to do something, it’s really hard for us to sit on our hands,” McFayden explains. “The idea [that keeps us] pushing forward is if this is our home and our community, we want to create unique things we think people in our community can benefit from and enjoy.”
Fellow Calgary restaurateur Justin Leboe (Model Milk and Pigeonhole) feels the pair have been successful in accomplishing just that. “We’re in a good place in this market right now; there are a few key players in this city that changed the face of restaurants and Kelly and Jayme are certainly part of that group,” says Leboe. “Their greatest strength is that their personal vision tends to be on the money with the generational shift that is going on in Calgary. They tend to be in the right place at the right time and giving the city what it wants at the moment.”
BMeX Group is continuously supporting local causes that further improve the community. The duo’s restaurants were early adopters of Meal Share’s “buy-one, give-one” program and played an instrumental role in the program’s expansion to Saskatoon. In addition to this ongoing support, MacFayden also sits on the organization’s board.
The restaurant group also takes part in several charity events in collaboration with other restaurants, such as Our Table, which supports Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter and Brown Bagging for Calgary Kids, which helps deliver healthy meals to young students.
“We love helping charities of all kinds, but I get a really strong sense of pride when someone in our community is being directly affected and you can see that,” says MacFayden. Eight years in, with six restaurants under their belts, it’s clear the entrepreneurial duo have set down deep roots in Calgary. As MacFayden puts it: “If you’re going to live here, why not give something back and do something great for the city. There is opportunity here to do that and that’s a pretty special place to be, because that isn’t happening in a lot of cities anymore.”