Last March, Chris Clark found himself sitting on a freezer full of breakfast sausages and hash browns and what seemed like an endless supply of pancake mix.
The owner of Sandy Flat Sugar Bush and Pancake House in Warkworth, Ont., was fully stocked to start maple season and was expecting thousands at the Warkworth Maple Syrup Festival. But the day before the big event, as the coronavirus spread rapidly across Canada, Ontario went into lockdown and the festival was cancelled.
The same story played out across Ontario and Quebec, with festivals abruptly called off. And it didn’t stop there; as it became clear that lockdowns weren’t going to be such a short-lived measure, cabanes à sucre, Canada’s beloved sugar shacks, were forced to shift their focus away from serving maple-drenched meals of tourtière, beans, pancakes and maple taffy on snow to swarms of tourists, to maple production.
The Association des Salles de reception et Érablières du Quebec found that since last year, of 200 sugar shacks that used to serve meals in the province, 40 have gone out of business, 16 have been put up for sale and 50 are moving away from meals. If lockdowns continue, fewer than 50 could remain in the province by the end of 2021. That’s a bitter hit for an iconic Canadian tradition (even as maple syrup itself is enjoying an upswing, with sales up 7.9 per cent in 2020 in Quebec).
Producers are also suffering in Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where cancelled breakfasts and festivals last year left many with unsold syrup and lower prices per gallon on what they could sell.
Brian Bainborough, former president and current board member of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association, doesn’t expect the province’s 20 or so sugar shacks to reopen this year either. “Do you want to expend tens of thousands of dollars to get products and supplies ready and then people can’t come? It’s a wasted effort,” he says.
He is seeing maple producers adapting, though, mostly through online syrup sales. That bodes well since he expects a good year for syrup production. “We’ll make a wonderful product, and we’ll just have to figure out different ways to get it to consumers,” he says.
That’s Clark’s strategy over at Sandy Flat. He plans to concentrate on syrup sales through delivery, farm-gate pickups and wholesale this year. He’s also selling at nearby local retail locations. “We’ve been fortunate to have other small businesses stand alongside us,” he says.
Thankfully, he’s not at risk of bankruptcy – yet, he adds – but he’s thinking of selling some or all of his property or rezoning to eliminate the pancake house, so he can focus on maple production rather than ecotourism. “Our goal is to weather this storm and come out the other side.”
At Sucrerie de la Montagne in Rigaud, Que., owner Pierre Faucher is also in survival mode. He’s pivoted to a takeout snack bar, serving bison chili con carne and salt-back bacon sandwiches to passing hikers, skiers and snowshoers. And he’s boxing up meals for takeout and delivery to drop-off points around Montreal – a system he switched to last year during the initial lockdown.
“We lost 90 per cent of our income,” says the 74-year-old, who normally employs 120 part-time staff in March and April. “Now we’re my daughter-in-law, my son and a few others,” he says.
Prepandemic, he was already selling syrup online, so with the government wage subsidy and his takeout operations, he knew he would squeak by but worried others wouldn’t. “The business of sugar time is millions of dollars that goes to the government through taxes. I’m sure they could afford to help the people who are having trouble,” he said back in January.
Finally, that help is on the way, thanks at least in part to the efforts of more than 65 Quebec sugar shacks, including his. The group came together to create the Ma Cabane à la Maison website, designed to centralize takeout and delivery sales for shacks. “Because of the initiative, Tourisme Québec is pitching in grants for 50 per cent of our expenses, like to help us purchase boxes and extra freezers, and then Quebec is throwing in money for fixed costs like electricity,” he says, grateful for the help. “It’s never really enough, but it’s giving us hope.”
Out west in B.C., the Association des Francophones et Francophiles du Nord-Ouest (AFFNO) will be delaying its annual Prince Rupert and Kitimat Sugar Shack Brunches to March 27 and 28, respectively, in hopes that the province’s dining restrictions will be lifted by then and a limited-capacity version of each event can go ahead under a tent. Otherwise, they’ll do takeout.
“Last year we managed to get our festival in before the pandemic hit,” says AFFNO general director Patrick Witwicki, “but this year we could see the writing on the wall.”
Nathan Scott of Dumfries Maple, 30 minutes outside of Fredericton, says he got one weekend of meals and tours last year before the shutdown.
He and his sister Jane turned to online syrup sales, leaving coolers outside for contactless pickups. Between those sales, farmers’ markets eventually reopening, supportive local retailers and a good year for syrup production, he sold about as much syrup as usual, though he missed the extra income from meals and tours. Unlike at Sandy Flat and Sucrerie de la Montagne, production has always been the focus of the Scotts’ small operation, which made all the difference last year.
Since he won’t be prepping to serve meals this year, he’ll be ready to open his pancake house at a moment’s notice if the province loosens restrictions.
Despite the uncertainty, Scott is stoic. “With maple production, we’re entirely dependent on the weather. This whole COVID thing, we have no control over it either, so we might as well stay optimistic. I think we can squeak through here another year and have a good production and things will slowly sort themselves out.”
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