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Taking a bite out of Whitehorse

Located in a small office space on Hanson Street in downtown Whitehorse, Adam Meilun’s workplace looks more like a student residence than an…

Located in a small office space on Hanson Street in downtown Whitehorse, Adam Meilun’s workplace looks more like a student residence than an artisan’s laboratory.

There’s no artwork hanging from the walls in the foyer, atypical for a patient waiting room. A few chairs, collected from the Salvation Army and steam-cleaned, line the walls.

The adjacent room is small and sterile and white. The only adornment is a dentist’s chair fixed to the floor, with an attached magnifying lamp.

The back room is larger and more mysterious, but still barren and white.

There’s a hot plate sitting on a table, a makeshift stove ready to cook … something. There’s a pressure cooker on a counter, attached to a bicycle pump.

There’s a fine white dusting in the sink, and large plastic jars full of pink and white powders standing by, and a roasting pan full of murky water.

These are the plastics and acrylics that Meilun mixes with water to make his moulds.

There’s also a couch, a boxer hound, Meilun’s wife, Andrea, and their infant son.

But there are no scientific instruments, such as a microscope, that might be required for such precision work. Meilun makes do with what he has.

He makes dentures.

It’s a tricky business, a combination of science and art that demands exact measurements of a client’s teeth, specific mixtures of chemicals and a fine eye for aesthetic appeal.

“You can’t just slap things together, you have to measure everything,” Meilun said, standing by in his white lab coat as Andrea looked on.

“Adam’s an artist,” she said.

“He even matches the gums.”

Meilun set up shop in Whitehorse three weeks ago, the third denturist to do so and the second in recent years, and his fledgling operation appears to be a true home-based business.

He and Andrea moved here just over two years ago. He took a job at the Northern Denture Clinic with Peter Allen, the Yukon’s veteran denturist who has been practising for about 20 years, mostly without competition.

There are 23,000 sets of teeth in Whitehorse, and perhaps 10,000 more spread throughout the territory.

The question is, are there enough of those problem teeth for three denturists to flourish?

Meilun thinks so.

“If you walk down Main Street in Whitehorse, I’d say one third of people have a hole in their smile,” he said, with a perfect white grin of his own.

“Five thousand clients per denturist is more than enough to make yourself a millionaire in 10 years.”

A millionaire in 10 years? Who knew there was such gold in false teeth?

A standard upper and lower set of false teeth costs around $1,600, said Meilun.

And there are dozens of smaller procedures that denturists perform, from simple repairs to mouth-guard moulds.

But is it realistic to suggest that 15,000 Yukoners — roughly half the population — will need dentures at some point in their lives?

Allen’s got about 4,500 hundred patients.

“Some people can get by on just a few,” he said.

“It depends how big your overhead is.”

When Christopher Von Kafka opened the Yukon Denture Clinic a few years ago, Allen felt the impact, he said.

“It’s a little like being Tim Horton’s when Starbucks comes to town. Everybody wants to try the new thing.

“But Tim Horton’s is still packed. That’s the same with me. Even when we’re not busy, we’re still a busy place.”

Allen isn’t too concerned about the additional competition.

“It certainly gets you to get your house in order,” he said.

But he doubts that there is enough demand for three denturists to do well.

“In a place like Ontario there are about 450 denturists, and 900 in Quebec,” said Allen.

“In the Yukon, I’m not sure there’s the base.”

But Meilun is undaunted.

He’s been a denturist all his adult life. He started learning from his father as a teenager in Barrie, Ontario, and has been practising professionally for 10 years.

In 2003 it was time for a change of scenery, so the Meilun’s visited Whitehorse and decided to make the move in 2004, with two of their four kids (the others weren’t yet born), and take the job at Allen’s clinic.

Meilun always wanted to open his own practice. Initially, he thought he would buy Allen out one day.

But they couldn’t reach an agreement, and went their separate ways six months ago.

Now, with a bank loan, Meilun is taking the plunge.

“Health care is terrific here,” he said. “There are great dental plans.”

It’s not the Yukon’s aging population that makes Meilun think he can make a go of it in a small town where two denture clinics are already established.

Per capita, there are more missing teeth here than in Ontario, he said.

Meilun has cut a deal with a local artists to show some work on his walls.

His first order of materials has been filled. He’s got a few clients, and expects more to come.

“We’ve had some help from people, and from our church,” he said.

“There are enough people in the Yukon for this to work.”