“Calm down! No one brings banana bread to work and quits the next goddamn day.”
Karen Theissen is on the phone, shouting, but not in a rage, rather professional. She is also scurrying around doing damage control on what is already proving to be “one of those days.”
Anybody who knows Whyte Avenue knows about DaDeO, a little Cajun diner located in the heart of the hospitality and retail corridor. And anybody who knows about DaDeO, knows Karen.
Theissen almost borders on a caricature of a woman who has been running a diner for 20 years. Her hair is in a messy ponytail; she’s wearing a Van Halen T-shirt; and her hands are almost always full or doing some form of busy work—making her greasy spoon damn near gourmet due to her dedication.
“Every once in a while I’ll be on my knees scrubbing booths,” she says, “and I know no one will notice these little spots or stains as much as I do.”
She says this fanatical attention to detail may be the product of her childhood.
Growing up in Lethbridge, there was very little to do, let alone places to eat apart from a Dairy Queen, which she calls a rare treat.
Once she left her small town, Theissen did what many rural refugees do in the big city: She got a job at a bar, starting young with pool halls on the outskirts of the city. Over time, she worked her way up the local restaurant food chain, eventually acquiring ownership of DaDeO.
But the past is not a place Theissen likes to visit. She tiptoes around every inquiry about her early life when bluntly confronted with questions about her origin story, how things could have turned out, and what her childhood was like.
She politely shuts down every investigation, making it crystal clear that she isn’t focused on who she was, but rather, what’s ahead of her.
“Karen’s a powerful woman,” says Derek Evan, who has worked for Theissen for eight years. “I was intimidated when I first met her. I then came to realize that it wasn’t about intimidation; it’s just the fact that more often than not she has a certain wisdom and is 99 percent right about most things.”
Theissen leaves no doubt that she can dispatch just as much shit as she takes and, in any other instance, this might lump a person into the category of unpleasant or standoffish. Yet, Karen Theissen is anything but.
Walk into DaDeO any day of the week and if she’s seen you at least twice in the same month, Theissen will sit you down, take a minute to chat and always make sure you’re being taken care of. There is an authenticity to her manner, and it’s a key indicator as to why DaDeO has stayed afloat for decades in Edmonton’s cannibalistic hospitality industry.
“DaDeO is about being who you are,” Evan says. “It’s that kind of environment, and Karen has a real nose for inauthenticity. In turn, she doesn’t act inauthentic to anyone.”
Thiessen walks by with two pints of beer, places them down and chimes in with a saccharine, small-town accent. It’s all “don’t cha knows” and “you betchas”—mocking the way some people who work in the restaurant industry sound when they’re feigning pleasantries.
“When it comes to how I act in the workplace, I think that’s just all me, that’s just all Karen,” Theissen says. “I never had to learn or be taught how to act that way. I want people to come in here, and I want to make sure they’re looked after. Do I remember them all? Probably not, but I try.”
She cracks her knuckles and checks over her shoulder as a hot plate of something delicious smelling rushes through the kitchen doorway.
Her knack for authenticity bleeds into not only how she treats patrons, but also her staff. Almost everyone who works at DaDeO has some story. In some way, none of them quite fit in where they used to be.
“I’ve been working here on and off for over a decade,” Joshua Harvey says. “And 10 years ago, I was just super goth, like embarrassingly goth—hair, nails, attitude, the works. But I still got a gig here. Karen doesn’t much care how you look; more so what you do. If you can succeed here at DaDeO for a year, you can walk into any other restaurant and nab a management position.”
Theissen has been doing this for years, and even though she admits to being able to remain sincere through highs and lows, there is always a lingering thought at the back of her mind—what kind of place DaDeO would be without her.
“Unlike most relationships, you can’t plateau with a restaurant,” Theissen says. “Everything is changing, like core clientele or trends. Every day, something different could happen, some are best case scenarios; others not so much.”
Theissen is a certain kind of old-guard restaurateur, and she knows how to keep pace with how fast Edmonton is growing as a culinary centre.
Her dry wit and charm would not fit in everywhere, and she says she knows all too well that, in the hospitality game, one’s bedside manner must at all times remain pristine, especially if you’re a new player. But that’s her magic bullet. Almost no one in this city has held onto a location as long as she has.
Theissen says her secret is providing clean tables, stiff drinks and good eats to anyone—regardless of who you might have been before walking through her door.
– Jake Pesaruk
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