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The definition of community: The diverse food and culture of Alberta Avenue

Alberta Avenue (118 Avenue) has the most varied foodscape in the city, from Ethiopian and Portugese specialties to Edmonton-famous green onion cakes.

For over 15 years, Battista Vecchio worked for the province's correctional system. A single dad who also owned and leased a commercial building on Alberta Avenue, Vecchio decided he wanted to do something different with his life. With no experience cooking, but holding childhood memories of his Italian mom making him calzones out of leftover bread dough, the optimistic 59-year-old opened Battista's Calzone. Vecchio's story and his cozy spot on 118 Avenue are part of the Eat on 118 tour, a tasty introduction to this culturally diverse central Edmonton neighbourhood.

Jay Ball, executive director for the Alberta Avenue Business Association (AABA) says the tours are a chance to experience new foods and discover the unique cultures of Alberta Avenue, which includes African and Caribbean influences, French, Ukrainian, Indigenous and others.

St. Albert residents Dennis and Marlene Bykowski are glad they nabbed a tour spot while they could. Though they've traveled a lot, the retired couple says that hasn't included checking out neighbouring 118 Ave. "It's especially neat to hear how restaurant owners came to open their businesses," said Marlene.

At Jasmine Belle Cafe it's about the Latin fare, with tastes of plantain and beef/chicken tacos. Up the block, the tour dips into T & D Vietnamese Noodle House where patrons try traditional beef skewers and spring rolls, and are encouraged to offer an artistic swipe of paint to a canvas being created by the business owner.

"These tours help provide relief and recovery for restaurants in our area," Ball said. "They're part of the vision of what Alberta Avenue can be."

At Battista's Calzone, tour guests enjoy an Italian beer and samples of the fresh-baked meat and cheese-filled calzones as Vecchio tells more of his story. "I had a good government job, but I knew I'd have regretted not opening a small shop. Facing my empty space here, I think it was destiny," said Vecchio to the group of about 20 eager foodies. "I decided to stick to just one thing: calzones. My great-grandmother in Italy had opened her own small grocery store, so I think it's just in my blood to do something like this."

"I'm one of the more established restaurants on Alberta Avenue now," added Vecchio, who's become busy most weekdays supplying the Edmonton International Airport with his easy-to-carry hand pies. "But it's a great, involved community here. We get kids from summer day camps coming in to watch our ovens go and create their own calzones. I'm grateful for what we've made here. I employ so many students--even my goddaughter is thinking about studying business in university after working here with me."

To some, Edmonton's Alberta Avenue (118 Ave) is known for street festivals like Kaleido and Deep Freeze, but the area of 118 Ave. between 79 and 105 Streets bustles year-round through places like The Carrot Community Arts Coffeehouse and Nina Haggerty Centre. For hospitality businesses, Eat on 118 has been an added draw. Over the last five years, the tour has brought thousands of patrons to visit over 40 restaurants along Alberta Avenue.

Area residents are an engaged bunch. Initiatives like 'We Believe in 118' is a community coalition of AABA, several 118 Avenue business owners, Arts on the Ave., The Edmonton EXPO Centre, the Avenue Revitalization Initiative, the Neighbourhood Empowerment Team and the Edmonton Police Service--all committed to working together toward a safer community, explains Ball.

As well, AABA is now partnering with a local pharmacy to provide free Naloxone kits and training to Alberta Avenue businesses. Business owners and employees will learn how to use the kits and how to recognize the signs and symptoms of an individual experiencing an overdose. 

Ball says he recognizes downtown and the Alberta Avenue corridor is one of the largest areas impacted by the opioid epidemic, and that businesses can play a critical role in helping those in life-or-death situations. “The health of our community and the sustainability of our business community are interconnected," he said. The program's goal is to have 50 businesses along Alberta Avenue, two per block, participating.

AABA represents over 200 restaurants, food markets, service shops, cafes, retail and more on 118 Ave, many that are family owned and operated. For information on the Naloxone initiative, see alberta-avenue.com.