Edmonton Is A Thriving Ecosystem For Black-Owned Businesses
This past weekend, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and Token Bitters CEO Keenan Pascal met over mocktails to discuss what it's like to start a business in Edmonton, particularly as a person of colour. The pair met at local seafood and cocktail bar The Black Pearl, and traded insights about the culture of collaboration in Edmonton, and the vibrancy of local Black culture and enterprise.
Watch the video below or read the transcription to learn about Keenan's journey, including how he started making bitters in his garage, and why he wanted to open a business in Edmonton instead of places like Vancouver or Halifax.
WATCH THE VIDEO HERE:
Mayor Sohi: First of all, cheers! Thank you so much for having me, and thank you to Jo, and thank you for making me this very delicious mocktail.
Keenan Pascal: Cheers!
Mayor Sohi: So tell me a bit about yourself, Keenan, and how long you’ve been doing business in Edmonton?
Keenan: Yeah, absolutely. So I was born and raised Edmontonian, my dad’s from the Caribbean, Dominica, and my mom’s from a small town outside of the city, kind of in Two-Hills County area. So yeah, I grew up here, went to U of A, then I went to work in the banking system. So I worked for ATB for five, six years, and then I moved to Vancouver to do an MBA, and out there I met this chemical engineer who was really into manufacturing things. So we were going through school, and I graduated, and I moved back to Edmonton and instead of going back into banking, I started looking at other options. Cam, me, and our other buddy, Jamie, we started talking about what we could make as an Edmonton company. So we looked at cannabis and bitters as two projects that we thought would be really interesting and emerging. Six years ago, we started bitters, so we made them in my garage and we started getting into the bars and liquor stores here and expanding different product lines. Within a year, we went from, like, just the small little three of us, to the biggest bittersy company in Alberta. Then we started selling it across Canada, and then we got into Japan. Then we rolled everything into a few business in terms of expansion, so we’ve got a couple other projects on the go. The other one is, we own this 16,000 square foot manufacturing facility just off the Yellowhead. We do bitters, mocktails and cannabis products in there.
"In Edmonton, competitors actually step up and help each other, and that spirit of collaboration is so engrained into our culture."
- Mayor Amarjeet Sohi
Mayor Sohi: So, what are bitters? And how did you come up with your name, Token Bitters?
Keenan: Yeah, Token Bitters. Yeah so we, the way we came, well bitters first are kind of like the spice rack for your bar, they’ve been around since like the 1800’s. People used to use them as kind of a medicine, for digesting and things like that, and then as the cocktail culture kind of picked up, people really started using them in cocktails. So, we just kind of timed it great where the Edmonton cocktail scene was really kind of popping off, and so we were just making bitters for our bartender friends. Jamie, he had a bar down off Jasper and 109th, and we just had a bunch of friends in the industry, so we just started making bitters for them. So bitters is like the spice rack for your bar.
Mayor Sohi: So you have seen growth over the last six years?
Keenan: Oh yeah, it’s been rapid growth. Between the two companies we have, like, thirty-five staff now, so it’s pretty nuts.
Mayor Sohi: So tell me, like as an entrepreneur, as a young Black Edmontonian, what were your experiences setting up the business in Edmonton? What were some challenges that you faced?
Keenan: I think that Edmonton’s absolutely an amazing place to set up a business. We looked at Vancouver and Halifax, so it was Edmonton, Vancouver, Halifax, because that’s where we’re all from. I really pushed hard for Edmonton because I feel like here it’s a young enough city, where you have the population, the network. I find Edmontonians very risk-friendly, so you can pick up a phone call and ask somebody with like one, two degrees of separation, and people will take the time and put a little risk on you to donate their valuable time. So I found that Edmonton was an amazing ecosystem for starting a business. And then as a Black person, I think that’s another really fun part about Edmonton. It’s so diverse that you can top and drop into different communities and there’s a lot of collaboration here. I felt that Edmonton was just a great spot when we looked at, kind of, other municipalities, Edmonton just shone in terms of diversity, willingness to help and just the ecosystem here.
"Edmonton was an amazing ecosystem for starting a business."
- Keenan Pascal
Mayor Sohi: That’s so true, like I noticed that too. In Edmonton, competitors actually step up and help each other, and that spirit of collaboration is so engrained into our culture. That speaks really well of setting up a new business, so I’m glad that you were able to get that kind of support. So, tell me. February is Black History month, and there’s a long rich history of Black communities here in Alberta, dating back almost 200 years. So tell us, to the listeners, what does that significance mean to you?
Keenan: Yeah, Black History Month, it’s always a great month just to remember how much the Black community has kind of contributed to the Edmonton ecosystem over the last 200 years in terms of the businesses, the organizations. One of my favourite events that came up this year was the Feed The Soul, so yeah, you were there…
Mayor Sohi: YeahKeenan: A lot of Black restaurants came together and just started sharing their concepts, similar to Downtown Dining Week that the Downtown Business Association does, but this was more for the Black-owned businesses. So that was really fun to see. The organizations like NBCC, Africa Centre, all their awesome concerts, the music, the festivals they do this year. I know that Andrew Parker has got his, the basketball with the Stingers today…
Mayor Sohi: Oh we are actually heading there today.
Keenan: Yeah, you guys are going after this. So, yeah. It’s a really fun month of just events and projects, and just seeing like, it’s not just for the Black community. Everybody kind of comes and celebrates and enjoys it, so yeah, I really like that.
Mayor Sohi: It’s really integral to Edmonton.
Mayor Sohi: Every year, everyone in Edmonton is looking for opportunities to celebrate Black History Month, and that’s the beauty of it. Well, great! Thank you so much, and once again, Cheers!
Keenan: No problem, Cheers!
Written and Transcribed By: JoAnne Pearce