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Back alley shops changing the face of storefronts in Edmonton

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WATCH ABOVE: Back alleys are often where you park your vehicle or leave your garbage. But a movement is underway to transform alleys in Edmonton. Julia Wong explains.

The Old Strathcona Business Association says the introduction of back alley storefronts in Edmonton is breaking the rules of how back alleys in the city are perceived.

Two retail shops have opened in the back alleys along Whyte Avenue in recent months – Holy Roller and bake shop Sugared and Spiced.

“It’s really exciting because we’re seeing our back alleys being used in a very different way,” said Cherie Klassen, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association.

“Typically your back alleys are dark. They’re not very nice to walk down. There’s big garbage bins everywhere. [Now] the opportunities are endless in terms of people walking down back alleys more. I think it also just changes the way people think about what a storefront can be.”

Ivan Beljan of Beljan Developments Ltd. is behind the development of both stores. He was first introduced to back alley storefronts during his honeymoon seven years ago in Melbourne, Australia.

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Sugared and Spiced opened in September 2017.
Sugared and Spiced opened in September 2017. Julia Wong/Global News

“We’re on their main street. All of a sudden, we turned this corner and there was this alleyway with a buzz of activity in there,” he said.

“It was such a neat experience. It’s a different urban experience in an alley. You’re sandwiched between two buildings so it’s far more intimate.”

Beljan said the idea stuck with him, and he soon found himself wanting to bring that same experience to Edmonton.

“I just think we lack special places. As a city, we’ve grown fairly big. We have a lot of retail centres and box stores but we don’t really have these gems of areas. That’s one thing I’d love to see more of in this city,” he said.

Beljan said the idea is becoming more popular, adding three more retail shops in the back alleys between Gateway Boulevard and 105 Street are in the works for his company.

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“There’s definitely a trend for retail becoming more compact. Instead of retailers taking big large footprints, because there’s a lot of online business and people still want some brick and mortar, having an alley retail allows you to divvy up that space a little bit so you have more tenants just taking smaller spaces,” he said.

The location in the back alley is what drove Amy and Jeff Nachtigall to open their bake shop Sugared and Spiced in the back alley. The pair said they looked at several locations around the city before settling on the back alley between Gateway Boulevard and Calgary Trail.

A cake on display at Sugared and Spiced.
A cake on display at Sugared and Spiced. Julia Wong/Global News
A selection of baked goods on display at Sugared and Spiced.
A selection of baked goods on display at Sugared and Spiced. Julia Wong/Global News

“We wanted a place that was really central and there’s nothing more central than Old Strathcona and Whyte Avenue. When we saw what the developer was planning for the back alley, we liked the concept,” Jeff said.

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“It is a little bit unusual. I think that’s in character for us. We like to be a little bit different.”

Jeff said some customers often say they seek out the retail alley shop because of its unique location.

“People are excited to find us here. It’s a little bit unassuming walking down the alley. When you come from either end, you probably don’t expect to find a bake shop.”

Sugared and Spiced started off selling cookies at a farmer’s market six years ago. It soon evolved into an online business and now a physical storefront the couple is pouring their hearts and time into. They said they wanted the storefront to be a place they themselves would want to visit.

“When we found this spot, we loved that it was near the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market. It being in the alley was unique,” Amy said.

“Other people hearing about the location… when they walk in are blown away. They didn’t realize it was here and are just in awe of this space in the alley because it’s unique to Edmonton.”

The couple said they are looking forward to having more neighbours in the alleyway.

“I think it’s only going to help strengthen this idea of making the alley a walkable area with shop-able locations and restaurants and other businesses,” Amy said.

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Both the business association and Beljan said they are working with the city to create more beautification down back alleys.

“It’s like when you’re in New York and you turn a corner. It’s like, look at this little gem here,” Beljan said.