Normand Lezlie-Campbell always had a dream of having his own restaurant. After 14 years working as a server and in management, the former Hot Box club, where renowned Edmonton jazz pianist Tommy Banks used to perform, suddenly found itself in need of a new tenant. Normand, just shy of 33 years old, finally found a home to realize his ambitions.
His mother, born in Quebec, influenced him greatly when it came to deciding what kind of restaurant he wanted to open. “I always wanted French, some kind of fine dining and continental cuisine. My mother, for instance, always made great homemade soups, and to this day we make our soups from scratch, just like my Mom did,” he tells me, his voice laced with nostalgia.
Originally, the restaurant opened as Normand’s Cafe and Espresso Bar, with mostly high top tables and chairs. The original plan was to open late, stay casual: get the late-night crowd. But as the customers rolled in, Normand found himself serving more fine dining fare then appetizers and snacks. “More people starting in for dinner. The customers dictated the shift. They loved the food so much that they thought it was fine dining.”
On the cusp of his second year in business, the transformation was complete.
Of course, finding your customers is really more about your customers finding you. And what they found at Normand’s was wild game meat. At first, he decided to only serve wild game for a month. But like the change from Cafe and Espresso bar to an exclusive high dining experience, his customers once again, drove the change. “We only did it for the month of November, but the demand was so high, we now not only always have game on the menu, but we have a wild game special every night. It definitely sets us apart from other restaurants.”
Due to his distance from the hotel core in downtown Edmonton, Normand’s hasn’t become a big tourist draw for those visiting the city. However, he’s noticed a steady stream of visitors travelling from China due to the popularity of his duck and other game dishes. “I know I’m on a travel website in China. They want to try the frog legs, the game, the duck. They love it,” he explains. For locals, it’s become a go-to for brunch and a place for celebrating special occasions.
Adjusting for the times has been a challenge, but in a good way. The love and demand for certain dishes has forced Normand to keep these dishes on the menu, sometimes for years. However, he’s more than happy to oblige. After all, it’s the customers that have been telling him what they want since he first opened. He credits his ability to listen and adapt his vision to their needs, as one of the main reasons for Normand’s staying open for three decades. “We try to adjust to the times, offering gluten-free options for example, but at the same time I can’t do too much. The customers expect certain foods to be on the menu.”
His driving philosophy is personal connection, and having a deep appreciation for his customers. “Raise your prices, but you cannot cut back the portion size. You cannot do both. That is a killer,” he says, then continues,
“Quality, not money, has to be what drives you. If you want to make a million bucks in the restaurant business, start with two million.”
After 30 years, his love and passion for good food and customer service hasn’t subsided one bit. The profit margins may still be tight, but he wakes up every day with his heart still telling him this is where he needs to be. “It’s definitely a labour of love.” Normand’s long-time customers seem to agree.