By Caitlyn Robison
EDMONTON — Andrew Cowan and Matt Phillips, owners of Edmonton-based Northern Chicken, were named national winners through Telus #StandWithOwners initiative, a contest designed to support small businesses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of its initiative, Telus has committed $1 million in funding, local advertising and mentorship to support Canadian small-business owners and to celebrate and promote their stories of community impact across the country. Northern Chicken is one of 10 applicants selected from thousands of entries to receive $10,000 cash directly towards its business.
“We are thrilled to be selected as one of the 10 grand-prize winners,” says Matt Phillips, owner and head chef at Northern Chicken. “We saw it as an opportunity to both share our story and to show what we do in the community. Throughout the pandemic, we gave away over $28,000 in donations.”
As a result of the provincial COVID-19 restrictions, Northern Chicken’s doors were closed for indoor dining. It had three positive COVID-19 cases, each of which forced the restaurant to close for two weeks, and lost five of its staff members due to mental and physical health concerns. “Our sales increased for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, and we had some record months last May and June, but profit was definitely down due to increased cleaning, PPE costs and takeout expenses,” says Phillips. “The isolation was tough on us and the staff.”
Despite these challenges, Northern Chicken’s community-minded approach grew stronger. The team delivered free meals for healthcare workers and teachers and provided much-needed cash injections to fellow small-business owners to help them stay afloat. Additionally, its involvement has helped communities who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic — such as its local 2SLGBTQIA community — through profits from the restaurant’s Full Squeeze rainbow brew.
Launched on November 4, 2016, the initial goal for Northern Chicken was to provide a safe space where people could come in and feel accepted and supported. The founders met while working at their previous job for Century Hospitality Group, and then decided to team up six years later after becoming friends.
“We both hit the point where we were tired of the fine-dining world, tired of working in places where we couldn’t afford to eat and where our friends didn’t particularly feel comfortable hanging out. We were tired of not making the food that we were passionate about in an environment that we were passionate about, and just a lot of the shortcomings in the restaurant industry,” explains Phillips. “The opportunity arose for us to fund Northern Chicken and get it going. We decided to create a restaurant where we ourselves would feel at home.”
Defying traditional hospitality workplace culture, Northern Chicken ensures all employees receive benefits, dress how they want, have two consistent days off unless otherwise requested, are paid well above minimum wage, and pool 100-per-cent of all tips to emphasize the importance of teamwork. Employees are hired for their personalities rather than their past job experiences, and then trained to become great hospitality professionals.
“We really focus on individuality and inclusion and letting staff be who they want to be with customers and in the restaurant,” adds Philipps.
With more than 80 per cent of its staff identifying as 2SLGBTQIA, Northern Chicken’s community involvement is very heavily mental-health focused and 2SLGBTQIA oriented.
“Having out business owners who are proud to show who they are does a lot for representation for youth and for other people to allow them to realize that people can do whatever they want, and that part of their identity doesn’t stop them from doing things,” says Philipps. “The number of messages we get from parents who are very excited to bring their children in to find a community where they can feel themselves and not be judged by other customers or staff is really huge. It’s something we are very proud to provide.”
In collaboration with other restaurant owners, Northern Chicken had also helped to found the charity, In the Weeds, a movement that supports positive mental health in Edmonton’s hospitality community.
The restaurant intends to use the $10,000 reward towards upgrading its kitchen, celebrating its employees and giving back to its community. “Due to COVID-19, we haven’t been allowed to throw a staff party for 17 months, so we’re going to take our normal staff party and amp it up. We’re also planning on taking a small amount of it and giving it to a local charity called Chew, that we heavily support, which is a queer charity that works for youth to go to camps and get clothing.”
Looking towards the future, Northern Chicken hopes to expand to a restaurant in either Calgary or Saskatoon, closer to Phillips’ networks, friends and family. However, “We are completely self-financed so coming up with expansion capital is quite difficult,” explains Phillips. “We are just going to keep running the course how it is and take advantage of whatever opportunities show up.”
Northern Chicken re-opened for dine-in on August 3, 2021.