Entrepreneurial Edmonton: Nate Box of Elm Cafe

For Nate Box, the inspiration for starting his own café came from a seemingly unlikely place.

Katie Willis - 23 May 2017

For Nate Box ('07 BSc), the inspiration for starting his own café came from a seemingly unlikely place. While he was still in high school, Box had begun working in the restaurant industry, a job he maintained throughout his studies at the Faculty of Science. Despite his love of the business, when he began his undergraduate studies Box had set his sights on studying medicine and becoming a doctor. That was where me met David Begg, professor of anatomy in the Department of Biological Sciences.

"Professor Begg became a mentor for me," explains Box. "After class one day we went to this amazing restaurant. He told me that if the restaurant business was something that I had an interest in, I should pursue it.

"It was so valuable to hear that this was something I could viably pursue, that there was value in exploring this other option," says Box. "Especially coming from a person who had been so successful in the world of academia."

And so, Box finished his bachelor of science in biology and took Begg's advice.

Exploring a different option

In 2010, Box opened Elm Café. Borne out of necessity, Elm is located in Oliver, one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city--one that, until 2010, had few options for cafes and restaurants. From here, Box's reach and success in the city of Edmonton only grew. Now, a restauranteur at heart, Box is owner and operator of four of Edmonton's most successful cafes and restaurants--District Café and Bakery, Elm Café, Burrow Grab-n-Go Café, and Little Brick--and Elm Catering.

In March 2014, District Café was created, housed near one of the busiest intersections in the city--Jasper Avenue and 109 Street. Elm Café became Elm Café and Catering in fall 2010 and then, later that year, came Burrow. "Burrow is a passion project," says Box. "We believe in central living and going where there is a need. In such a high-paced environment, we wanted to provide quick, healthy, excellent food and coffee to commuters."

Box's most recent project, started in March, 2015, is Little Brick, located in the residential neighbourhood Riverdale. "This was a project with a couple of partners who saw an amazing opportunity in a place that is central to Edmonton's pride and heritage," explains Box.

A testament to his roots in science, something Box always comes back to in the kitchen is quantifying the quantifiable. "A dash of this or a shake of that is not acceptable for me," he explains. "I want measurements millilitres and grams. It is important to define those measurements so that we can take the equation, hand it to the next person, and get the same results."

From replicating his results to methodical management and meticulous attention to detail, Box explains that there are many parallels between the restaurant industry and science. "Whether it is explaining what makes dark meat dark and white meat white, to the methodical cleaning and sterilizing of our equipment, this work, much like science, is precise and meticulous."

"It's a lot like science. It means taking risks, and putting your time and resources into something with abandon." -Nate Box

While most of his time is now spent in the office, Box is careful to ensure he stays connected to each project and its community. He spends at least two days a week in the kitchen, with his own station, apron, and cloths. "I wash dishes and make coffee too," laughs the humble Box, known throughout the city for his warmth and innovative spirit. "I love this city, and I love that I am a part of it. Edmontonians are well-traveled, and we know a good thing when we see it. Edmonton carries great pride, and--as a community--we yearn to support projects and stories that are homegrown."

Each of these locations, explains Box, is unique and tailored to the community in which it lives. Staying connected to the community and to the city is what he believes keeps his business viable.

And as for what it means to be an entrepreneur? "I think entrepreneurship is simply taking a leap of faith, starting something on your own, and pursuing it wholeheartedly," says Box. "It's a lot like science. It means taking risks, and putting your time and resources into something with abandon."

"Be undeniably good. No marketing effort or...buzzword can be a substitute for that." -Anthony Volodkin

Innovative roots and entrepreneurial spirit make Edmonton undeniably great--and graduates from the Faculty of Science have been a part of this greatness since the beginning.

Three such alumni are Nate Box of the Elm Café, Kale Edwards, co-founder of Situation Brewing, and Bob Schilf, owner and operator of Track 'N Trail in Edmonton. We will be sharing their stories as a three-part series online, but you can read them all at once in the Spring 2017 issue of Science Contours.