Open that Bottle...with Blaine Armstrong
Blaine Armstrong’s first job, at 15 years old, was working the graveyard shift at Denny's in Victoria, B.C. He had no idea then that this would lead to his future career.
Studies in radio and television arts at Ryerson University took him to Toronto, but after graduating he realized that there was no room for writers - it was all reality television. He became a dad, and when he moved to Calgary to be close to his daughter, worked at three of Calgary’s great restaurants, Wildwood, Catch, and Mercato, before completely changing tack.
“I noticed when I was working at Catch, how much organics were being thrown in the dumpster, and I thought there has to be a business here somewhere,” he explains. “So in ’09, from the back of my car, I started recycling coffee grounds and then bought a little truck.” Working with the city’s high-end restaurants, hotels and cafés, his reputation grew fast: “So from a little cube van, within seven years we had seven or eight garbage trucks. I was driving around in garbage trucks picking up compost, and had a warehouse for recycling Styrofoam.”
Armstrong missed the hospitality business though, and a visit to Bourbon and Branch speakeasy in San Francisco, which he absolutely loved, decided him, ‘Calgary needs one of these.’ It took a year and a half to convince the property manager to lease the premises to him, but eventually, in 2015, he succeeded. With a friend, they completely renovated, and late 2016 Betty Lou’s Library opened, named after his mom, a single mother who raised three kids on her own, and who’d fought to become a bartender in Victoria.
“I had to borrow money to meet payroll for the first two weeks,” Armstrong says, “and then all of a sudden it started - within eight weeks, we'd have a hundred people on the waiting list. It was just word of mouth, I didn't do any social media.” Driving a garbage truck in the day and changing out of his Carhartts into a suit to bartend at night soon took its toll however, and he sold the recycling company.
Armstrong had walked up and down Calgary’s 17th Avenue SW, every night of the week for a month, looking to see who was underserved. “And it was professional women,” he says. “So our whole aesthetic and 70 percent of our clientele are professional women.” Part homage to his mom, and part to women, Armstrong is proud that Betty Lou’s is a safe place for guests and a safe place to work. “We’re the only place in town to tell you to put on more clothes than less, and we have a code of conduct, strictly to keep people safe. We have the best guests, every week somebody pulls me aside and tells me how much the place means to them, and makes me cry. We get so much love from our guests. We just do our own thing here,” he adds. “It's every guest, every time.”
So what is Armstrong’s special occasion wine?
“I'm straw testing here 24/7, and we're doing micro-adjustments on the cocktails,” he says. “So I don't want to mix anything when I get home, I want it already in the bottle. I want to open it up and I want it to reveal itself to me.”
“When my favourite chefs go home, they make themselves a grilled cheese sandwich or macaroni and cheese, they don't get fancy. They want a beautiful cheese and beautiful sourdough,” explains Armstrong. “And when I get home, I want a beautiful bottle of pinot.”
His bottle is Ken Wright Cellars McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir. “It's at its best when you’re down to your last glass and a half and you've let it open up. Oregon pinot - that's my weakness.”
And when will he open the bottle? “You know what? Honestly, I just drank my last bottle of McCrone,” he says. “I had a friend over and we’d both been through a lot. So we opened it up - life is short, let's treat ourselves.”