Erin Penosky is the owner and operator at Koi, an inner-city restaurant that supports Calgary’s arts and music scene. While she knows that the recent rise in minimum wage will affect her business, she is focused on proactively working to ensure that Koi can remain a part of the community.
With a background as a singer-songwriter, and over fifteen years of experience in the restaurant industry, Penosky didn’t plan to take on such a big role when she first started at Koi, an arts-and-music focused cafe in downtown Calgary, in 2014.
Then she got a job as a server, and saw what it could become.
“There was so much more potential in this little spot that was kind of untapped,” she says.
It wasn’t long before her role started to evolve.
“When I found out that the owners were wanting to pass it off to someone in the community, I just kind of did anything and whatever I could to make that happen for myself,” she says.
Located on 1st Street SW, Koi has an Asian-fusion menu that offers a selection of vegetarian, vegan-friendly and gluten free dishes as well.
Beyond the food, guests at Koi are immersed in local culture. A variety of visual artists’ works are featured on the walls of the restaurant. The cafe also showcases musicians ranging from hip hop, to jazz, to electronic and even spoken word, almost every night of the week.
With the Oct. 1 minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, small businesses that cater to a niche audience like Koi are struggling to keep up.
“It’s definitely hard for the small guy to recoup from that because it’s not just a little bit, it’s a pretty big hike for all of my employees,” Penosky says.
While serving as a creative hub for starving artists adds to her economic pressures, Penosky believes it’s this diversity that sets Koi apart from almost any other Calgary cafe.
“I feel like we’re one of the only places in Calgary that actually adheres to every single community, as opposed to just a couple. It’s a very safe space for a lot of people,” she says.
Daniel Jenkins — a.k.a Old Man Junkins — was first introduced to Koi when he was starting out in the music scene, searching for local open mic nights.
Three years later, he hosts the open mic night every other Tuesday and appreciates Koi for the inclusive platform it gives Calgary artists.
“It’s a place that you don’t really need to fit into, you just kind of embrace your inner person and who you are creatively as an artist,” he says. “That’s what people expect — they go there for different types of personalities, different types of opinions and views.”
While Koi has become a favourite gathering spot for many artists and their followers over the years, Penosky has felt the effects of Calgary’s tough economic times — people are spending less money when they go out.
“I’ll have a full room of people who came out to support their friends on stage, but we’re not getting a lot of the sales,” she says.
Jenkins has seen similar effects. He says, “The people that are working for the next dollar, the next paycheck, are more often than not ... supporting by showing up, but not necessarily financially.”
Jesse Aaron Shire, a server at Koi who’s a musician himself, believes having a city with more transit options could help yield greater turnout.
“Compared to other cities that have pretty well established artistic communities … the thing that really stands out for me isn’t even necessarily the quality of the art being made, it’s accessibility,” he says. “Calgary’s built around cars... So if you don’t have a car and you don’t want to pay for parking, it can be difficult to encourage people to come out to your events.”
Knowing that she’ll have to increase menu prices, Penosky worries customers will be even more deterred from spending.
“It’s kind of this double-edged sword where I’m trying to adhere to different types of communities, and some don’t have very much money… the starving artist community, and those coming to support their friends that are starving artists.”
After noticing that several similar businesses were shutting down in Calgary, Penosky decided to be proactive.
On Sept. 2, Koi hosted its first fundraising event, “Keep Koi Afloat.” The night included musical performances, visual arts displays and a silent auction.
The event served as a way to reach out to the local community and highlight the need for financial help, not only for artists, but for the venues that house them as well.
“We as a venue need a bit of support as well as the musicians on stage. The more that people support the venues, the more that the venues can support the artists and vice versa,” Penosky says.
The event raised more than $7000 that will help the restaurant to make improvements and ultimately stay in business.
Although the idea of receiving funding has come up, Penosky doesn’t want to lose what makes them unique.
“Some people have kind of mentioned, ‘Oh, why don’t you just go for a not-for-profit and cancel the restaurant side of things and just run a venue that’s for up-and-coming artists?’” she says.
“But I love the food industry so much as well. I love that we balance both.”
Penosky plans to host more fundraising events in the future, hopefully adhering to some of Koi’s different communities.
While she already sees a good amount of support for the arts in Calgary, Penosky suggests that Calgarians should continue to recognize local artists by supporting them and the venues that host them as much as possible.
She argues that any amount can make a difference in keeping Calgary’s arts scene alive.
“Throwing five dollars in the hat, that’s huge… it means a lot to artists who are pouring their heart and soul on stage.”
- By Alaina Shirt