Lessons in resilience from Ontario family businesses | Ontario Culinary
loader image

Lessons in resilience from Ontario family businesses

How the power of community has helped three family-owned businesses weather 2020.

When Courtney Colas reflects on 2020, the word that springs to her mind is not panic, pandemic or even pivot. “It’s patience,” she says with a wry laugh. “Everything has just taken so much longer than it should have.”

Speaking with Colas, another p-word springs to mind: positivity. Colas, you see, is standing in Creperie Verlan, the Hamilton restaurant she and her husband Mike opened—against all odds—just over a month ago. 

On this cool November morning, he’s preparing for another day of serving up French classics: crepes, of course, but also croissant-and-butter pudding, rose petal-topped creme brûlées and other twists on the expected; all in a sunny, chic space designed to conjure up “the outskirts of Paris,” she says. “Not the tourist district.” 

When they signed the lease in February, they expected to open in May. After the pandemic upended everything, their landlord gave them the chance to break their lease, but the couple decided to push forward. 

“We’d fought so hard to find this space,” Colas explinas. “The pandemic had already set us back so much, it was like, ‘Do we really want it to set us back even more?’ So, we just went for it!” 

Frankly, it seems like a mini-miracle that they’re even open now—especially when you find out that, in addition to getting this place open, Colas and her husband already own another restaurant, Oakville’s Feast On-certified La Parisienne Crêperie, which they’ve had to navigate through lockdown, takeout, patio season, and now the second wave. (As if they needed another level of pressure, this is the same restaurant Mike’s parents, Parisian immigrants, had run for two decades, which the couple took over in 2015.) 

Thanks to hard work, “overwhelming” support from the locals and an “amazing” team,” LP (as they affectionately call the original location) has weathered the storm so far, and Colas is similarly optimistic about Verlan’s future too. Although yes, they did pivot the business model a bit, adding a “petit marché” stocked with local products (“if I use it in my cooking, it’s on those shelves,” says Colas) to work in tandem with the dining room. 

“So far, it’s going well,” she says. “Everyone here in Barton Village has been so welcoming. There’s such a strong community vibe, and it’s really about collaboration, not competition. The local support has been humbling.” 

The importance of community is a theme that comes up over and over again when you ask Ontario’s smaller, family-run businesses about how they’ve handled 2020. It’s certainly been a guiding light for Sargent Farms, a poultry producer that has been in the same family since 1943. 

“The Sargent family lives and breathes Milton,” explains Justin Robinson, the company’s chief marketing officer. “They live in the community, they shop in the community, their friends are in the community. When COVID hit, we just stayed true to who we are, and put the community first.” 

That focus is why, when panic buying led to empty grocery shelves and competitors took the chance to price gouge, Sargent Farms decided to “serve the community first,” says Robinson. The company prioritized getting product onto their e-commerce site and into their two stores, places where their neighbours—the people of Milton, Mississauga and the surrounding area—could access it, rather than channeling their supply into the big box retailers who were clamouring for it. They also continued to donate a portion of their proceeds to grassroots causes like their local hospitals and The Darling Home for Kids, which provides respite, residential and palliative care for children with serious illnesses. 

“We do these things because we’re committed to being a sustainable company, in everything that we do,” says Robinson, going on to explain that, while stewarding the planet is a Sargent Farms value, they also expand the idea of sustainability beyond the usual environmental definition. “We care about how we treat people, how we integrate into our community,” he continues, tying it all back to their raison d’être: the 100 percent natural, “old-fashioned” (in that it is minimally processed) chicken they sell right back to the community where it was processed. And that matters, says Robinson. “When you choose a Sargent chicken, or shop at another small retailer or restaurant, all the profits end up back in the local community. They don’t go into the pockets of a large corporation.”

And, in return, those small businesses do what they can to reciprocate that support. When the entire world shut down in mid-March, Mark Rickards witnessed something he’d never seen in all the years he’s been running Glenburnie Grocery, a Kingston-based purveyor of primarily local goods that’s been in his family since 1967. 

“There was this panic in the customers’ eyes,” he remembers. “There was an eerie feeling that made it unpleasant to be as busy as we were.” 

Rickards, who’s been “on the payroll for probably 45 years,” had actually been scaling back his involvement in the day-to-day business, but overnight, he was back to 80-hour weeks. 

“We thought it was going to be for three weeks, but that turned to six months and, to be honest, and it hasn’t really backed off since,” he says. “It’s been a challenging six months, but I have a great staff, and they’re the ones who have made it still fun to come in each day.” He also credits his suppliers, who made it possible for them to have stock when shelves were bare. “We pay our bills on time, and we treat them well,” he reflects. “It helps being good to people, and when you need them, they’re good to you in return.”

And while it’s been a “win-win-win” year for Glenburnie Grocery’s bottom line, Rickards is acutely aware that his business’ good fortune may have come at the expense of the local restaurants who have struggled because people are choosing to stay home and cook for themselves. (Over at the meat counter, for instance, they can’t keep pork hocks or chicken bones in stock, since everyone is currently making homemade soup.) 

He’s certainly not tempted to use the elevated demand to fuel expansion. Glenburnie Grocery is the sort of place where you’re greeted at the door, where you might run into a neighbour and talk for 20 minutes in the aisles, where the staff have time to special order you an item the store doesn’t usually stock. If they got bigger, they’d just be “another big box store,” says Rickards, and that’s the last thing he or his customers want. 

“I just want things to go back to the way they were,” he says. “But until then, we’re going to get through this, we’ll be there for people, and somehow, we’ll all find our new normal.”

as part of the Great Taste of Ontario Special Report