Four years ago, instead of shuttering the patio at Café Bicyclette in Edmonton during the winter, Daniel Cournoyer kept it open.
Mr. Cournoyer, executive director of La Cité Francophone, the cultural centre that operates the café, used outdoor fire pits and blankets to create an "après-ski feel within the urban environment."
At first, remembers Mr. Cournoyer, "people would sit by the window and look outside, but not actually sit on it."
The reluctance didn't last long. Today, people visit the café expressly to sit on the winter patio, enjoying coffee, lunch or dinner outside. As long as the temperature is above minus-10, the patio stays open.
It's part of a transformation taking place across Edmonton, the northernmost big city in North America. Since the city's council endorsed a winter city strategy in 2012, a rethink of the cold, dark season is under way, with opportunities emerging for small businesses.
"When you shift the culture to be one that embraces winter more, it has implications on everything, including business," says Susan Holdsworth, WinterCity co-ordinator at the City of Edmonton.
The WinterCity Strategy was initiated by a volunteer think tank and seeks to transform Edmonton into a world-leading winter city. Ms. Holdsworth oversees the implementation plan for the comprehensive strategy, which targets winter life, design, and the economy. "Maybe some day we could have a business incubator that has more of a focus on innovative winter businesses," Ms. Holdsworth says.
Already, some businesses are benefiting by considering the cold. American company Ice Castles LLC opened its first Canadian ice castle in Edmonton in 2015, and the popular attraction is back again this winter. Kick-off-to-winter patio parties were held early last December and had 17 patios participate, while farewell-to-winter patio parties held in previous years have seen more than 50 venues partake.
"Businesses buy into the idea. Of course they want to have more customers, more tables, more people to serve," Ms. Holdsworth says.
A handful of those patios stay open year round. Café Bicyclette continues to experiment with different outdoor features – a wall sculpted from snow surrounded the patio the first winter, while this year a pergola provides a spot for live entertainment.
The biggest challenge, Mr. Cournoyer says, has been the warm spells. Rain has made the patio icy, while rising temperatures have melted snow features outside. He also says it's been a cultural adjustment for staff, who are often unaccustomed to serving patrons in subzero temperatures.
Winter design guidelines, accepted by Edmonton's City Council late last year, could encourage more cafés to stay open. The guidelines outline how design strategies can block wind and maximize sunshine, and how colour and lighting can be used to enliven spaces.
Janet Riopel, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber recently received a grant to fund new lighting on the exterior of its downtown building, the first venture under a pilot project for creative lighting on historical buildings.
A lifelong Edmontonian, she's seen various initiatives over the years aim to take more advantage of winter. This one, however, seems to be sticking. "The community right now is really motivated and focused," she says. "It's a great business case to be able to offer all these things year round. Just saying we have to huddle up in our home, just because it does get a little cold, doesn't make sense."
Jeff McLaren, executive director of the 124th Street Business Association in Edmonton, started a free outdoor festival in November, 2013, called All is Bright, to illuminate the area for the winter season. Now an annual event, the festival held in a shopping district with nearly 400 businesses includes a countdown to the switching on of its holiday lights.
"We're competing with malls, we're competing with other areas that have advantages, so how do we make our area unique and different and as inviting for the patrons as possible?" Mr. McLaren says.
"Winter is too long of a season to ignore."