EPIC shifts focus from chefs to diners with new concept

· The Pulse

After rebranding from JustCook Kitchens earlier this year, EPIC has shifted away from its original food hall concept to a new model for its downtown location. But an expansion later this year could see the food hall return, with a twist.

"When we first started JustCook, the idea was having a brand targeted to chefs," Maëlle Toews, chief marketing officer at EPIC, told Taproot. "We were focusing on infrastructure and the technology for operations, so chefs had the tools to become business owners. But what we've learned is that though chefs like to create new dishes and menus, they don't want to be running the actual restaurant."

Toews said the JustCook name also did not resonate with diners. "JustCook wasn't meant for that," said Toews. "But EPIC for us represents what we want to be — we want people to come in and have an epic time and an epic experience that they remember and share."

In addition, EPIC has transitioned to encompass more refined, elevated food rather than the fast-casual concepts it started with. The new menus have been created by five "chefs in residence," but are executed by EPIC staff.

"That would be the main difference between JustCook and EPIC," said Toews. "Before, we left the chef to handle the kitchen side of things, and now we're in the kitchen."

The five chefs include Edmonton's Winnie Chen of Fu's Repair Shop, Peter Keith of Meuwly's, and Lindsay Porter of The Common, plus Calgary's Alex Edmonson and Oliver Butterworth from B.C.

Toews said EPIC selected the chefs based on their industry connections and word-of-mouth, and the arrangement allows those chefs to flex their creativity outside their day-to-day restaurants. For instance, said Toews, Chen's Asian fusion offerings at EPIC expand her repertoire.

"All the dishes that (Chen) made for our menu are things that she had considered for Fu's but didn't fit on that menu," said Toews. "This allowed her to explore a different side of her cooking. It's not a competition, it's a complement."

Maëlle Toews of EPIC in front of the plant-filled green wall at the downtown location

Maëlle Toews of EPIC said the business's new concept was informed by feedback from chefs. (Sharon Yeo/Flickr)

The other menus feature tapas from Keith, Italian plates from Porter, French cuisine from Edmonson, and plant-forward items from Butterworth.

Meat Shack Barbecue is the sole remnant from JustCook's fast-casual iteration, but Toews said diners have embraced the wide spectrum of food. "We have seen people order from both menus," said Toews. "The nice thing is that barbecue is pretty complementary to the five concepts that we have."

The downtown location operates more like a full-service restaurant now, where diners place orders with a server. But EPIC plans to try the food hall concept again at its forthcoming second location near Whyte Avenue. That location, in partnership with Beljan Development at Station Park, is slated to open in October and will feature a larger footprint that makes it easier to offer the food-hub experience.

"We are restricted with the layout downtown," said Toews. "At Station Park, it will be a less full-service model but without feeling like a food court."

Diners will interact directly with each concept, and the five resident chefs will offer a fuller menu for each. Toews also promised more events, such as cooking classes, special dinners, and the option to book the venue for weddings and corporate gatherings.

Back downtown, Toews said things have been tough, citing a combination of COVID, fewer people than anticipated returning to office towers, issues with perceptions of safety, and inflation. But she remains hopeful that with the changes, EPIC can become a destination.

"We want the experience to be a special outing and bring something more than just 'going to a restaurant'," said Toews. "We want people to come in together and have a good time and come back."