Founded in Calgary, this food court staple has blossomed across Canada

Walk into a food court at any major mall in Alberta and you’re bound to see some familiar signs: at least one mass market burger joint, a greasy deep-fried Chinese place, a sub shop, and a few of the other usual high-fat, low-flavour suspects. What you’ll also likely see is an Edo Japan. With 71 locations in Alberta, Edo Japan has become a familiar face in the world of quick service food, but as countless Edo fans can already tell you, the popular chain doesn’t serve up your typical food court eats.

Edo Japan is so ubiquitous in Alberta that many people assume it’s a large American chain or that it’s been imported from Eastern Canada, but the company actually has its roots firmly planted right here in Calgary. The restaurants come by their signature style of Japanese Teppan-style cooking honestly — the company was founded in 1979 by Reverent Susumu Ikuta, an honest-to-goodness Japanese Buddhist minister. Ikuta wanted to bring a fresh style of cooking to Calgarians and he started with the restaurant format that many of us still associate with Edo, a simple food court kiosk in Southcentre Mall.

Since Ikuta opened that first food court location almost 35 years ago, the brand has grown by leaps and bounds, though the concept of simple Teppan-style cooking has remained essentially the same. In 1999 Ikuta left the company and self-described “restaurant mechanic” Tom Donaldson was hired as Edo Japan’s President and CEO. Donaldson immediately got to work tweaking some of the elements of the business that didn’t work and made the most significant change in 2002 when he opened Edo’s first stand alone “street” location. By 2006, Donaldson was so confident in Edo’s potential for continuing success, he bought the business from the founders and is continuing to grow it through franchises as well as the handful of restaurants that he still fully owns himself.

Donaldson’s pride in Edo is based primarily in one thing, the most important thing — the food. With plates of Edo’s two signature dishes, Teriyaki Chicken and Sukiyaki Beef, sitting in front of him, Donaldson points out the key differences that separate Edo’s food from the other fast food options available in a mall or suburban power centre: it’s steaming hot and the vegetables are bright, crunchy and fresh.

“The big differentiator for us is that it’s hot,” Donaldson says. “When can you go to a fast food restaurant and find hot food? Everyone is selling warm food. Here you get hot food — that grill is 450º F and the tables are 15 feet away from it. And then it’s plated and brought to you right away.”

Edo Japan’s Teriyaki Chicken and Sukiyaki Beef may not be as fancy or complex in flavour as something you’d see at a high-end Japanese restaurant, but it’s certainly more appetizing and healthy looking than a bucket of fried chicken or a limp-looking sub. In fact, Edo Japan’s meals don’t look all that different than the type of thing that a home cook would typically make on an average weeknight — simple steamed rice and a lightly seasoned meat and vegetable stir-fry. The difference, of course, being that you don’t actually have to go through the effort of making it yourself.

Which brings us to what Donaldson considers the most important way that Edo Japan has evolved under his stewardship — the evolution of the street location. Donaldson says that the street locations, which have popped up in places like Beacon Hill, Aspen Landing, and Sunridge Square, have moved Edo into a different market, namely the dinner trade. Donaldson watched many of his competitors — be they burger places, taco shops, or even the sub restaurants — move into breakfast, but he knew that Japanese food wasn’t suited for the typical North American breakfast staples of bacon and eggs, so he decided to go in the opposite direction and convince people to come in for dinner. In a city where cheap take-out can be hard to come by, Edo’s street locations have seen a lot of action in the evening when people are looking for a relatively healthy dinner for less than $40.

“You’re getting something that you’d be proud to feed your family if you don’t want to take your kids into a hamburger place for dinner,” Donaldson says. “We’re in the middle, bridging that gap between a two-hour evening to go to full service. For $40 you can bring your family of four here and have something that takes 25 minutes and you can feel good feeding it to yourself and to your family.”

Donaldson has also been careful with the design of the street locations, making sure that they’re large enough for patrons to sit and eat comfortably without feeling rushed or like they have to scarf down their meal. Looking around the Sunridge Square restaurant during a Tuesday lunch hour, it’s clear the concept is working. There are single people reading the paper while they leisurely eat, friends and co-workers chatting quietly over their meals, and perhaps most tellingly, a large table of uniformed police officers loudly laughing and smiling as they dig into their stir-fries and sushi.

“You’ll notice that our restaurants all have a significant amount of seating,” Donaldson says. “The typical small box restaurants like sub shops or taco shops don’t have much room to sit down. We try to keep our kitchens small and our dining rooms large so that people can enjoy a break from the office or their car or wherever they are during the work day.”

Even though the company has existed since 1979, the timing seems right for Edo Japan’s brand of casual food. Donaldson prefers the term “quick service” to “fast food,” (even though he smiles and admits that the two phrases essentially mean the same thing), but there definitely seems to be a trend towards quick and inexpensive food that has less guilt (and fat) attached to it than your typical Big Mac or Dorito-shelled taco. The evolving Edo Japan has more in common with increasingly popular fresher fast food like the American Chipotle chain, Canada’s Mucho Burrito, or even a corner bakery or deli. While Donaldson is hesitant to say that Edo Japan’s growth is due to some kind of health craze (he points out that the more traditional fast food restaurants aren’t exactly hurting these days), he thinks that a segment of people are demanding a certain quality when it come to the food they put in their bodies.

“There’s a lot of talk about health, but people lead with good food,” Donaldson says. “They’re looking for something good to eat. And the supporting actor is healthy — I don’t think healthy is in the forefront, but it’s coming and it’s growing.”

And with that trend, Edo Japan will continue to grow as well. Donaldson is approaching expansion cautiously, not wanting to burn out by going too far too fast. The company currently has restaurants in five provinces, though the bulk of them are in Alberta. As the brand continues to get stronger, they may become as ubiquitous in other provinces as they are here at home. Until then, Donaldson is happy to expand Edo Japan’s menu (their sushi, which is surprisingly tasty, is becoming more and more popular) and capitalize on Calgary and Edmonton’s growing demand for something a little bit different.

“When I came on the scene, my timing couldn’t have been better because people were starting to look at different kinds of foods and exploring the culinary world,” Donaldson says. “If you look at Calgary in general, the last 15 years have seen a dramatic change to a very thriving restaurant scene, which is amazing. We’ve kind of been on that same wave as far as customers wanting to explore something other than traditional quick service.”

Photo courtesy Edo Japan

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