How Windermere became a restaurant hot spot

· The Pulse

If you pay attention to restaurant openings in Edmonton, you'll hear one particular neighbourhood coming up a lot lately: Windermere.

Whether it be high-profile chains like P.F. Chang's and California Pizza Kitchen or new locations for independents like Black Pearl Seafood Bar, the area south of the Anthony Henday Freeway and east of the river has become a food destination, as restaurants follow customers to the urban periphery.

"The city's pushing more towards the outskirts, and it's pushing away from downtown," said Shakeel Dhalla, general manager of Black Pearl, which started at 10132 104 St. eight years ago. "Since COVID happened, a lot of people are staying out of business centres. People are trying to stay at home, they're working from home, and we're really trying to reach out to them."

The seafood bar opened its second location at 1285 Windermere Way on Aug. 2.

"Once one restaurant opened up, everyone gravitated towards it," Dhalla said, explaining what has drawn Black Pearl and others to Windermere. "We all saw the blowing up of the population."

Windermere now has a critical mass of businesses organically pulling others in, but that groundwork was laid by developers convincing companies of the promise of the neighbourhood, said Tony Prsa, the Alberta vice-president for Harvard Developments, which manages the Currents of Windermere shopping centre.

"In particular for P.F. Chang's, we did court them, and it came down to a decision for them between ourselves and West Edmonton Mall," Prsa said. The completion of the Henday made Windermere accessible to the city and the surrounding region, he noted, and while WEM may be a destination, Windermere has a desirable customer base that lives and works in the area.

Harvard's leasing information indicates that the average household income in Windermere exceeds $160,000, and census data from 2016 suggests it is one of the most affluent areas of Edmonton. "So that has a lot of checkmarks associated with it," Prsa said. "And secondly, it's the diversity in the population. When somebody's looking at Asian fusion, we have a very strong Asian population in this area. So, you can be guaranteed that you're going to be supported by the neighbourhood."

An aerial view of the Currents of Windermere shopping centre

The developers behind the Currents of Windermere have courted big-name chains with the promise of a large, well-off population that wants to eat close to home. (Harvard Developments)

The Windermere neighbourhood has been in development since the early 2000s, and while Windermere-Southwest Edmonton is already home to 185,000 people, residential capacity is still expected to grow by 15% to 20% in the years ahead, Prsa said.

There are aspects of this shift to the outskirts that are unique to the pandemic and recent developments, but Windermere is just "the next spot in a kind of ongoing kind of pattern of sprawl," said Rob Shields, a researcher and professor of sociology at the University of Alberta.

"In 40 years, it will be somewhere else. It's just an ongoing kind of process," he said.

The Windermere location gives Black Pearl's clients the dining experience they want, without the hassles of the city centre, Dhalla said.

"We already have a downtown location. And I know the parking down there is not the best at times, and probably the worst at other times just because of events, concerts, and everything else,"

Downtown and other traditional shopping districts have been slow to recover from the pandemic, Prsa observed. COVID changed the way many people work, and in turn, where they want to spend their leisure time and money.

"The trouble with downtown now and for the last two years is it has just been decimated by the pandemic, and the lack of immediate customers at their door has really put a strain on those retailers and those restaurants. Their customers are just not there, they're gone," Prsa observed.

"They're there in the 'burbs working from home for at least the last two and a half years. That's forced a lot of these brands to really start looking elsewhere."