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Economy

Oil's loss is our taste buds' gain

Low crude prices grounded Alberta's economic engine to a halt and forced these workers to reinvent their career paths

Rob Tryon of Effing Seafoods (right) shucks oysters at Von's Steakhouse in Edmonton, Alta, on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

Rob Tryon of Effing Seafoods (right) shucks oysters at Von’s Steakhouse in Edmonton, Alta, on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

Codie McLachlan/for The Globe and Mail

When Rob Tryon first came to Alberta to work in the oil industry, he had made a difficult decision to trade the personal freedom of life on the coast for high wages, benefits, and more predictable working conditions.

"I grew up fishing on the West Coast, and I loved spending my days on the ocean," says Mr. Tryon, who spent 11 years in the remote Barkley Sound region off the western edge of Vancouver Island growing oysters and shellfish before moving to Alberta as a pipeline worker. "It was the hardest decision of my life, but like any type of farming, aquaculture isn't a high-value industry."

By last fall, the oil industry was no longer high-value, either, as low crude prices led the province's economic engine to grind to a halt. Mr. Tryon knew he needed another path for himself.

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That's how he found himself behind the wheel of his pickup truck last September on the way back to the coast with the sobering knowledge that no employment waited at either end of the road. Four hundred kilometres into the trip, he had an epiphany: He wouldn't return to the ocean; he would bring the ocean to Edmonton.

Mr. Tryon is one of thousands of oil-patch workers who have either had to move away from the province or reinvent themselves in new careers, including some in the food industry.

For him, that meant dream- ing up Effing Seafoods, which he bills as a mobile seafood distributor for chefs in the Edmonton area.

The food industry can be just as volatile as the fickle humour of petroleum – perhaps even more so – and yet Mr. Tryon knew that bringing West Coast seafood to Alberta would give him far more control over his financial future.

"I started calling everyone I knew on the coast, getting product lists, price lists, just reconnecting. That was last October, and I'll never forget how exciting that was," he says.

Mr. Tryon returned to Edmonton after two weeks and began networking with chefs and markets. He had a hook, and he knew it. He named his nascent business after the Effingham Inlet oysters (or "Effing Oysters," as they are fondly known) he once raised.

"I can't believe I'm friends with chefs now and seeing their passion for what they do. I'm going to be in two to four farmers' markets per week this summer. I get to see my daughters more," he says. "They understand what I'm doing here."

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Robert De Groot and his wife, Barb, faced a similar impasse in Vegreville, about an hour's drive east of Edmonton. The end of Mr. De Groot's career in custom hydraulics nudged the couple to a much older path trodden by adversity: moonshine.

"My wife suggested that I make a still, but I wondered what I would distill into alcohol," he says. "Again, Barb pointed out that the answer was right in front of us: wheat. It's the cheapest thing on the Prairies."

Mr. De Groot worked with a posse of ex-oilfield workers to build a 250-gallon copper still out of scrap metal and observed that the lingering downturn in oil prices produced an unexpected benefit.

"The bank thought I was a good risk," he states, "and I don't think they would have lent me money if oil was above $50 a barrel."

The De Groots unveiled Red Cup Distillery last November with the help of an Alberta BoostR crowdfunding campaign and quickly presold 250 bottles.

"My first batch tasted like crap, though. I didn't know that you had to season the still with alcohol first," he says, laughing. "I met this old Ukrainian guy and he explained it to me, but broaching that topic was really tough. It was like asking for his daughter's hand in marriage. The old shiners have been unbelievably helpful, and we've been figuring it out from there."

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Red Cup's impeccably drinkable interpretation of the open Prairies turned heads and sold quickly.

"The AGLC [the province's liquor regulator] wants more output, but right now we only have the capacity to sell from our storefront," explains Mr. De Groot. Plans for a larger facility are under way, though Mr. De Groot is adamant that he'll stick to what he describes as his core values.

"This is a product for everyone, not just for some. That's why it's $30 a bottle. I want the friends I made in oil and gas to be able to afford it. They are smart people. Hard workers. They don't have jobs any more."

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