Behind the line: Saskatoon chef Mike McKeown

The chef on starting and running a small business amidst bigger, national chains.

Chef Mike McKeown Saskatoon

Being hyper-local is no easy task anywhere in Canada, save perhaps the Okanagan, but it's especially difficult in Saskatchewan. Borderline impossible, even? Nonetheless, chef Mike McKeown accomplishes this at his Saskatoon restaurant, Prairie Harvest Cafe.

If I had to pick a restaurant that could sum up Saskatchewan food in a nutshell, it would probably be McKeown's popular eatery. Nestled in a little strip mall in a residential area of the city, it's definitely not a flashy location or one with high foot traffic and yet, it's almost always packed with hungry people. The menu concept is simple: Saskatchewan ingredients transformed into cozy comfort food that people can find some warmth in when the snow starts to fall.

The chef sat down to talk about his city's food scene, including its lull in new restaurant openings this year, how the popularity of chains affect small businesses, surprising ingredients that Saskatoon chefs have access to in the dead of winter and a lot more.

It seems that Saskatoon has had a really slow year in terms of independent restaurant openings, aside from Primal. Why do you think that is?

I think part of it is the fact that the people who are wanting to run their own restaurant or open a new spot in the city are already doing it. Personally, this year has been a hard one. Business has been fluctuating. There is a lot of competition and obviously we are out of the way. I don’t know, it’s been a weird year. The months we’ve expected to be insane haven’t been and the ones that you assume will be slow have been the opposite. There’s no rhyme or reason this year and I think a lot of people have felt that.

On the flip side, the city has seen a big number of new chain concepts opening up in Saskatoon: Cactus Club, Milestone's, Mr. Mike's.

It is kind of crazy. Everyone [in the industry] was sort of thinking that that particular [diner mentality] was starting to go away, but then Famoso popped up and it’s busy--Mr. Mike’s, Cactus Club, Milestones. All of us smaller guys have definitely felt that hit this year, there is no doubt about it. As each of those places open, it just spreads it out a little bit more. Cactus Club and Famoso definitely do a good job at what they do. They’re not a Boston Pizza or anything, but they are also able to offer specials that are tough for restaurants like ours to compete with.

Most Canadians aren’t familiar with what “sourcing local” in Saskatchewan means in terms of regional ingredients. So, what is the hardest locally-raised meat to get your hands on here?

Now, it’s duck. A local producer used to do it, but they don’t have the demand for it anymore, so it’s really hard to get. We had to take our signature turducken burger off of the menu because we couldn’t consistently get the product locally. Everything else is pretty accessible though.

On that point, many Canadians also assume Saskatchewan is a barren -40 C wasteland in the winter, but realistically, are there fresh ingredients chefs here can work with year-round?

We do have a few greenhouses that are producing tomatoes pretty much year-round; eggplants, microgreens, herbs, things like that. Floating Gardens is an example of a producer that's doing that. Obviously, root vegetables and squash are always around and there are Hutterite farms that know how to store through the winter. You do have to be more creative with ingredients in the dead of winter though.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba are big fans of ice fishing. Is that something that chefs can rely on for fresh seafood in the cooler months?

Yes! I go to Charlie’s Seafood every day and get fresh pike, trout, pickerel, or whatever is available. The trout is year-round and the pike takes a month off here and there, but for the most part, we can have it on our menu.

The price of beef has skyrocketed this year, but you're in the Prairies, so is that an ingredient that can even be taken off of the menu?

Well, it's no secret to anyone in the industry that the margins have gone way down. We have our hand-ground beef burger and it’s in our PH lasagna too. Those types of things would be hard to take off the menu here, impossible, actually.

Prairie Harvest Cafe was featured on You Gotta Eat Here last year, which for the record, is much more enjoyable than Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, since it's sans-Guy Fieri. Did you see a spike in covers because of it?

Yes, definitely. Every time that episode airs, I notice an increase in business. We even get constant phone calls while it’s airing and then usually, we’ll see a spike for three or four days afterwards. It also helps to get out-of-town people into the restaurant. If people have seen you on an episode, they are more likely to venture out of downtown to wherever to come check it out. We've actually even had a lot of people who do You Gotta Eat Here tour-type things. Overall, it’s been great for the business, for sure!

What's one concept that you think the Saskatoon food scene does exceptionally well compared to other cities?

Well, we have some fantastic local bakeries. The Night Oven and Christie’s are amazing. I would say The Night Oven in particular is on par with anything else in Canada. The extent that the owner, Bryn Rawlyk, goes by grinding his own flour, the wood-fired oven and all of that--it’s truly exceptional and he’s very devoted to it.

You don't really do any traditional advertising in Saskatoon. Is the use social media an integral part of your business?

We’ve started using it more, but we keep it pretty simple. A picture of the lunch special or supper special, whatever it is. We see responses from it and I think before, I wasn’t so willing to utilize it that way. It is a fine line, though, [before] bashing people over with multiple posts a day and overloading the feeds, but sharing once or twice a day is good and gets people thinking about you at least.

Since opening Prairie Harvest almost four years ago, what’s one thing a person should be prepared for when opening their first restaurant?

Everything! Ha, ha, ha. We opened with nothing in our pockets and it was difficult just trying to stay on top of everything. The things you don’t realize at first are going to be such huge, huge issues, like CPP and EI for employees, those kind of things. If a piece of equipment breaks, it has to be purchased, like, right now. Those were all of the things that I took for granted when I was working for someone else. You realize that every tray of bacon that gets burnt is money out of your pocket, actual, real money, your money.