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Photos: East Coast entrepreneur runs business out of 130-year-old lighthouse

Jill Curran is the owner and founder of Lighthouse Picnics, a business that specializes in gourmet lunches, sourced from local suppliers along the coast. Meals are prepared, packed in baskets and brought to people perched on the cliffs taking in the views.

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Jill Curran operates her small business out of a 130-year old lighthouse outside St. John's, Newfoundland. She never dreamed that one day she would be running a business out of the lighthouse where her great grandfather was once the keeper.

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Lighthouse Picnics specializes in gourmet lunches, sourced from local suppliers along the coast. Meals are prepared, packed in baskets and brought to people perched on the cliffs taking in the views.

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Since 1870, the lighthouse at Ferryland Head, a fishing village 80-kilometres south of St. John’s, stood as a beacon to passing ships. Although it is still operational, the lighthouse has been automated since 1970.

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For the 100 years previous, the lighthouse was staffed by families who lived in the two-family dwelling, including Ms. Curran’s ancestors. As a child, Ms. Curran grew up next to the old lighthouse.

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The lighthouse was an iconic symbol for the community, with artists living there in the late 70s and early 80s. But from that point on, the building fell into "significant disrepair," says Ms. Curran, and plans were made to tear it down.

Canadian Coast Guard and LighthouseFriends.com (a guide to visiting Nfld. lighthouses)

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Fortunately the Ferryland Historical Society, established in 1621, stepped in and lobbied the government to turn it over to the community.

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In 2003, after spending several years in faraway places like New Zealand and Scotland, Ms. Curran moved back home and soft-launched Lighthouse Picnics.

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When she started Lighthouse Picnics in she admits the idea "was a strange one." The thought of eating a gourmet picnic served on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean sounded good on paper, but she wasn’t yet ready invest in marketing materials to promote the business.

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"It was a new concept," she says, and the early days were a struggle. "Guests would have to trek two kilometres on a gravel road to a lighthouse that had been abandoned for years, with no water or electricity."

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The first tourists simply didn’t know what to expect when they arrived. "What is this?" they would ask, blanket in hand. "A class project?" But because she was taking a chance, many customers rooted for her and loyally returned to the lighthouse, year after year.

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In the early days, food was prepared in Ferryland, transported to the site and served from a stand. Without a functional kitchen, the logistics in that first year were "nightmarish," she recalls.

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After a successful summer, she approached the Ferryland town council for permission to restore and occupy the lighthouse. With the help of local fishermen and boat builders, they restored the dwelling and Lighthouse Picnics was officially open for business in 2004.

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Now approaching its 12th season of operation, Lighthouse Picnics has a staff of 13 people, including high school students who make the lemonade.

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It’s been named ‘a cultural gem,’ attracting food writers from across the world, and was ranked as one of enRoute’s "100 Favourite Things in the World" in 2004.

Photo courtesy of Randy and Faye Hughes (pictured)

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During high season, between the months of May and Sept., up to 150 travelers visit the lighthouse each day.

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The picnic costs approximately $25 per person and includes a salad, sandwich, dessert and lemonade.

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Depending on the day, the menu may include: an orzo, pepper and fresh mint salad; a chutney-glazed ham and brie sandwich on homemade bread; cranberry scones or peach shortcake.

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Despite the fact that they’re selling ‘relaxation and calm,’ it’s a fast-paced, frenetic environment during the hours leading up to opening. The irony isn’t lost on Ms. Curran. They open the doors promptly at 11:30 a.m., but all the hard work – baking bread, chopping vegetables, taking calls and folding blankets – takes place early morning.

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What makes Lighthouse Picnics work, however, isn't just great food and spectacular views, says Ms. Curran. "Part of the beauty is the hike, seeing the islands in the distance, the cannons, the seabirds," she says. "It’s total relaxation. No cars, no landline, no WiFi. People are forced to relax and lose track of time."

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Visitors also develop life-long friendships as a result of chance encounters on vacation. "It’s the conversations – whether with her or fellow travellers – that people remember most. It’s the whole experience."

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As for the picnic side of the business, Ms. Curran points to their historical and cultural significance in Canada, especially in Newfoundland. "Picnics are a lost art in so many societies."

Reuben T. Parsons / Library and Archives Canada / PA-501457/Group includes Mrs. R.T. Parsons; her mother, Mrs. Joe Ross; and Bill Parsons / ca. 1900-1914 / Harbour Grace, Nfld.

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Ms. Curran says she didn’t grow up wanting to open this business. Lighthouse Picnics wasn’t an idea burning for years and years.” After traveling the world and working abroad for years, however, she was ready to move back, to what she calls, "the most beautiful place on Earth."

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The business was born of necessity, more than anything else, she says, and she wanted to do something that would help revive the community. "The Lighthouse was in bad shape…I wanted to figure out a way to bring it back it in a way that made sense," she says.

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Since opening, Ms. Curran has thousands of tourists over the years and has been involved with local tourism boards and companies. Through her work, she met the owner of Maxxim Vacations, a tour operator, who asked her to take a temporary maternity leave position in 2008.

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In Dec. 2010, Ms. Curran had the opportunity to buy the tour operator, which she did. "It was a big step, going from one business to two." But because of the connection with Lighthouse Picnics, "it made all the sense in the world," she said.

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In terms of the challenges of running two businesses, there are quite a few, but Ms. Curran rolls with them. "Every day you want to be prepared – reputation is everything in this industry." She’s an early riser, and depending on the day, she’s either commuting to Maxxim’s office in St. John’s or heading down to Ferryland for the day.

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Being the only building within a 2-kilometre stretch can also be a struggle, especially if the power goes down or the pump fails. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally she's at the mercy of mother nature.

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But the busy entrepreneur, wife and mother takes it all in stride. "I’m lucky…my job is to make sure people have great memories."

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