You have to be a few spices short of a brisket to open a restaurant in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. The bankruptcy rate for restaurants has long been among the highest of any sector and the industry’s lobby group, Restaurants Canada, estimated in December 2020 that eight out of 10 restaurants were either losing money or just scraping by, and that 48 per cent of those with just one location expected to close permanently within six months if conditions didn’t improve.
So what did Edmonton restaurateur Paul Shufelt do? He opened not one but three restaurants in 2020. He also overhauled his flagship location, Workshop Eatery, and completely restructured his business from mostly dine-in to exclusively takeout and delivery.
Shufelt says the reinvention has come with “gut-wrenching” decisions — he laid off 70 per cent of his workforce when COVID struck and Workshop’s revenue is down 65 per cent year-over-year — but the company is still here and he’s building it back. He’s rehired many employees and has no plans to quit. “My mindset is to tread water so we can bring all of the staff back as soon as possible,” he says.
Many business owners succeed because they’re intimately familiar with every aspect of their enterprises, and Shufelt is no exception. His first job was washing dishes at a restaurant in his hometown southeast of Montreal. He returned to kitchens each summer of college, working his way from prep work to line cook to sous chef. At 21, he moved to Canmore to work in the restaurant at Silvertip Golf Course, then to Banff where he apprenticed at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, then to Edmonton where he took the three-year culinary apprenticeship program at NAIT — the same program that has populated Edmonton with a surfeit of quality chefs.
Now, he’s the closest thing Edmonton has to a celebrity chef. Over 10 years, as corporate chef for the Chris Lachance’s Century Hospitality Group, he opened seven restaurants, each of them causing at least a small stir among the city’s epicureans. He has been a longtime columnist for the Edmonton Sun and is a regular contributor on the local television circuit (now via Skype, of course). He makes good use of his businesses’ social media accounts, with nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram.
Shufelt developed an interest in running a business while working for Lachance, and became just as comfortable reading a balance sheet as roasting a duck. But, he says, in spring 2015, he was at a crossroads. “I’d grown as a chef and a leader,” he says, “but I reached a point of, ‘What do I do next? I’m a passenger on Chris’s ride.’”
So he opened Workshop Eatery. Almost four years later, he opened Woodshed Burgers, which was incorporated under Robert Spencer Hospitality (named after his two grandfathers) and grew his business acumen through negotiating leases and bank loans, managing contractors and obtaining permits. He now has a spreadsheet of more than 125 things that need to be done — over and above the menu — to open a restaurant.
As a chef, Shufelt is a generalist. He’s trained in classical French — butter is always near the top of his list of monthly expenses – but his experience has veered from Thai to Italian to Tex-Mex. He describes his culinary brand as “seasonally inspired approachable food.” He opened Workshop as a slightly upscale but still welcoming place in November, 2015. It thrived, and Shufelt eventually expanded his offerings by opening Woodshed Burgers on 124th Street, featuring local beef and craft beers. Locally sourced is part of Shufelt’s brand, with his menu featuring Bon Ton Bakery, Effing Seafood, Roasti Coffee and Pinocchio Ice Cream among other regional favourites.
It was in December 2019 — the before times, so to speak – that Shufelt thought it would be a good idea to take on the contracts for the restaurants at three City of Edmonton-owned golf courses: Victoria, Riverside and Rundle Park. A golfer himself (he has a 12 handicap, up considerably since the birth of his daughter eight years ago), he thought the food service at the courses needed an upgrade. He branded them The Greenhouse Restaurants and, while Rundle didn’t open because of COVID, the other two performed well through the summer of 2020. Victoria, which features five outdoor fire pits, was able to stay open through mid-December by catering to the skating and cross-country skiing crowds. Then it, too, closed.
Shufelt and I speak that same month, the day after the Alberta government closed restaurants to in-person dining. I thought he would sound worn down, maybe even a little desperate, but nothing of the sort. “We made the decision in November that, regardless of what Premier Kenney said, we were going to close for everything except takeout and de-livery,” he says. He reworked his restaurants to respond. Woodshed’s business remained strong because burgers travel well — revenue there was down just 20 per cent — but Workshop suffered. Duck confit reheated in the microwave just won’t do. So Shufelt rebranded it The HenHouse and featured a small menu dripping with brisket, pork and beef ribs, pulled pork and fried chicken. They take time to prepare, but reheat well.
Shufelt’s girlfriend, Patrycia Rzechowka — a Top 40 Under 40 alumna well known in the city for her work as a motivational speaker and fundraiser in the fight against multiple sclerosis, from which she suffers — says she has been amazed by Shufelt’s ability to keep his businesses afloat. “He puts on a brave face and he is able to get through anything,” she says. “That first year with Workshop was so stressful and then he got comfortable and, all of a sudden, it’s back at square one.”
Perhaps Shufelt’s boldest move came with his decision to open a second Woodshed location last July. It’s in Ellerslie, in fast-growing southern Edmonton, at a spot that had operated as an English pub. “The kitchen was what we needed,” he says. “The walk-in cooler and exhaust were there.” Six weeks after signing the lease it opened and Shufelt says he’s pleased with the response. “I’m incredibly grateful to the community which has allowed us to get this far and keep our doors open, and to the team that makes it happen.”
To help balance the books through the pandemic, Shufelt renegotiated his leases and took advantage of financial support from the federal government. When we spoke he was employing about 70 people, down from a high of 120 in the summer. He says his restaurants will reopen gradually and only when it’s safe for diners and staff to do so, but that they will reopen.
Along the way, Shufelt and Rzechowka also found time to obtain a dog and a small acreage east of the city. No firm plans yet, but don’t be surprised if it soon hosts herb and veggie gardens for the restaurants and farm-to-table dinners for Shufelt’s legion of fans.
Stylist Alyssa Habchi, Hair and Makeup Tiiu Vuorensola Wardrobe provided by The Come Up, Mr. Derk, Sport Chek and The Optical
This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Edify.