Another high-profile chain has pulled up stakes from Edmonton’s downtown mall.
Visitors to the top floor of Edmonton City Centre last week were surprised to find the usually busy McDonald’s that anchors the food court walled off.
In a statement, franchisee Joe Gebran confirmed the restaurant is closed for good and thanked customers and fellow tenants for “many years of support.” He did not elaborate on the decision to close the location, but said all managers and staff have signed on for jobs at other locations around the city.
Some greeted the news with pessimism. The closure comes amid a rolling departure of well-known chains from Edmonton’s downtown, including Starbucks (part of a larger corporate retrenchment), The Bay and Sport Chek — which some attributed to concerns about crime and disorder in the core. In 2022, City Centre management invited journalists to the mall to highlight the “millions” being spent on security measures.
One social media user went as far as to say: “If McDonald’s can’t survive in downtown Edmonton, nothing can.”
Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, agreed that many businesses continue to struggle in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fate of the McDonald’s, however, is likely a more complicated story, she said.
McBryan suspects the decision was “largely just due to aggressive pursuit of profit by these big multinationals and prioritizing the highest possible volume, the highest possible order sizes, and all those kinds of things.”
In the case of McDonald’s, that usually means two things the City Centre location did not have: round-the-clock hours and a drive-thru.
“McDonald’s corporate is a 24-hour business,” she said. “You think of most McDonald’s locations, they’re busy for lunch rush, but they’re also busy all through the evening, they’re busy all night long, and starting at 6 a.m. for breakfast, or even earlier.”
The City Centre location, on the other hand, relied entirely on foot traffic and closed around the end of the working day.
“So that location, and same with their Commerce Place location before that — it was really only the lunch rush and maybe a bit of breakfast traffic.”
McBryan said the relatively isolated location — up two escalators from street level — meant most of the restaurant’s clientele were office workers in the connected pedways. For businesses that rely on that customer base, McBryan said, the long-term outlook is mixed.
Downtown 80 per cent of pre-COVID activity
The University of Toronto’s Downtown Recovery tracker — which looks at geolocated mobile phone data in 66 North American downtowns — says Edmonton is currently at 80 per cent of its pre-COVID activity levels. That puts it middle of the pack in Canada, with Mississauga (91 per cent) and Montreal (67 per cent) at the high and low end, respectively.
McBryan said that number is positive, but attributed it in part to a surge of activity at Rogers Place, hotels and conference centres and downtown post-secondary institutions. Office workers have yet to return in droves. McBryan said the DBA’s surveys of building managers have found office buildings are at about 50-60 per cent occupancy — where 100 per cent is every employee in the office every working day.
“I definitely think the five-day-a-week in-office policy is an outlier,” she said. “There’s very few of those. It’s mostly two to three days (a week) in office.”
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That means some days — usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — are very busy. Mondays and Fridays are quieter — even more so if the weather is bad.
“It’s bumpy, but I think it’s safe to say where we’re at is the new normal.”
McBryan said that while downtowns are less attractive to big chains, she’s bullish on independent businesses.
“We have new independent restaurants opening regularly. There’s still constantly new announcements, mostly hospitality, but new businesses of all kinds opening downtown. And frankly that better suits, I think, the wants and needs and changing behaviours and demographics of downtown.”