Timing is everything for Michael Klassen.
The six-foot-five, 275-pound defensive lineman had the good fortune of ending his CFL career after the 2019 season before the COVID-19 pandemic put football on hold in Canada.
But the novel coronavirus has created no shortage of challenges for Klassen’s post-football career as a restaurant owner/operator in downtown Calgary.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Klassen said during a recent telephone interview. “But we’re grinding it out and counting the days until people start working downtown again and living a somewhat normal life so they can come and eat at our place.”
Klassen spent seven CFL seasons with Montreal (2013-16), Calgary (2017) and Ottawa (2018-19), registering 108 tackles, 14 sacks and two forced fumbles in 87 career games.
Upon retirement, the former Calgary Dinos player moved back to Alberta with plans to launch his own strEATS restaurant (www.streats.ca, @streatscanada on Instagram).
Klassen opened his business in April 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic had hit Canada. The 30-year-old Calgary native is operating his restaurant currently, offering pickup/takeout and delivery.
“I’m not going to lie, it was pretty scary last March,” Klassen said. “We opened April 10 because all of our plans to open and construction happened before we knew what COVID really was and the potential repercussions.
“Right now we’re kind of still in survival mode but as bad as things and how scary it was, things have been good for us … we actually have plans to open 16 more stores in the next year.”
Klassen comes by his business acumen honestly.
His father, Joe, opened Joey’s Seafood Restaurants (formerly Joey’s Only) selling fish and chips in Calgary in 1985. Franchising began seven years later, and by 2008 over 100 locations operated across North America before the American outlets eventually ceased.
“People thought they were crazy starting a fish-and-chip joint in the middle of the prairies,” Klassen said. “But they grinded it out and had success with it.
“We wanted to try to evolve and revitalize the brand. I was involved in my off-seasons and we came up with the concept of strEATS, which is our play on street food. Most of our items are tacos, poutines, burritos and we carry fish and chips but tacos are why people come and see us.
“Especially our fish taco because we have Pop’s world-famous batter and we’re still battering our own fish.”
The global pandemic has given Joey’s Seafood Restaurant an opportunity to evolve also. It’s been rebranded as Joey’s Fish Shack with an entirely new menu and decor.
“It’s been exciting as we’re starting to see an entirely new demographic of younger customers coming in and enjoying our offerings,” Klassen said. “We’re opening new (Joey’s restaurants) for the first time in 15 years.
“I’d say I learned a lot from my father growing up. I give him and my mom a lot of credit and with how they raised me.”
Klassen’s home life is also about to change. His wife, Kim, is expecting their first child in October.
“If my life hasn’t changed enough the last couple years,” Klassen said. “I think this might be my biggest challenge yet, and I couldn’t be more excited to take on a new role as a dad.”
Klassen said he’s attacking his post-football career much like he did on the field — full speed ahead.
“Since we opened this location, we’ve actually opened four more so I’m kind of like a franchisor and a franchisee,” he said. “I’m in a weird spot because I own my own spot but I also help out the others.
“We have stores in Alberta, the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, Winnipeg and one in Ottawa and I think we’re planning on opening more in Ontario pretty quick here.”
Klassen said football has helped him make the transition into business.
“In the CFL, nothing is guaranteed, especially your job,” he said. “Every year you’re going and fighting for that job versus a typical work environment where maybe you’ve been there a while and gained the trust of your employer and sometimes you can maybe take it easy a little bit.
“I think football is where you learn to keep pushing and not take your foot off the gas.”
Klassen has no regrets about when he retired, but admits he misses football.
“I miss the heck out of it but I don’t know if I miss it as much as I would if there was actually football being played,” he said. “More importantly, I miss the locker-room relationships, of being able to travel around Canada and playing before a bunch of people.
“That meant more for me than the actual game of football. The game itself hurts, it sucks sometimes, it’s a grind. But everything that comes with playing football, that was way more fun.”
Klassen finds business life much more encompassing than football.
“Football was go, go, go from May until hopefully the end of November,” he said. “During the season you’re at the facility every day but you can take your mind off it for at least a couple of months right after the season before you actually have to start training again.
“You take work home with you every night, you’re always thinking about it. There’s always stuff to do.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2021.