Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Aileen Ireland who owns Algonquin Fine Foods in Magnetawan, Ont.
What is Algonquin Fine Foods?
We sell food. We started primarily with produce, but now we’re into everything: meat, eggs, maple syrup, honey. And it’s gourmet food. We try to get as much local as we can, but we also carry a wide variety.
We started getting into clothing as well, and a little bit of home décor. Basically anything that people would really need at their cottage.
How did the business get started?
We moved up to Magnetawan in 2006 after my husband took early retirement. We had 12 acres out here that we used as a cottage. So, when he retired, we moved here permanently, added onto our cottage and turned it into a home. I was too young to retire, though, so I was looking for something to do. I started working at a convenience store owned by people from Innisfil. There was such a need for produce in our area that my boss said to me one day—because I grew up in Bradford, the heart of the vegetable industry in Ontario, and knew a lot of farmers—why don’t you go down there and bring up produce?
He would give me Thursday, Friday, Saturday off—your busy days—and I would go down and get a truckload of produce. Before I could even get the tarp off, people were there buying it. So, I started it out of the back of my truck, then we moved into a shed and put a fridge in there, but we had way too much stuff for a refrigerator in a small shed. So, we turned the whole shed into a walk-in cooler.
After that, we moved around a few places in town. We were at one spot where we had a tractor trailer for about five years. And then in November 2018, the opportunity came to buy the store that we’re in now. It used to be the town clerk’s office back in the ‘70s, but some local people bought it over the years and it turned into plumbing and electrical storage. It was an estate sale, so you couldn’t even walk in there when we bought it. But we hauled everything out and sold it, and then proceeded to renovate the whole inside of the building.
What inspired the name?
We were called The Veggie Stand. That’s what we started out as, and then when we moved to our new building, we changed it to Algonquin Fine Foods. We’re fairly close to Algonquin Park. You can go in through South River where Tom Thomson was. And when people think of the north, they think of Algonquin, right? So really, we chose the name because people, if they’re googling Algonquin, it’s one of the things that would pop up.
We also had my nephew do our logo. He’s a very talented graphic artist. So, he did the logo for us and it all just fits together and says “the north”.
What are your most popular products?
It depends how you look at it. As far as volume, I sell a lot of produce, but there’s more dollars involved in the clothing. We carry a line of Canadian clothing, Parkhurst. That’s all made right in Toronto, which is fantastic. And Joules, which is one of our large suppliers as well. They’re more on the country-side. That sort of style.
But the reason people come into our store is for our produce and meat. We’re like a full grocery store, except we don’t have to go anywhere else, we can just buy everything around here.
Where do you source your food from?
A lot of it still comes from the Holland Marsh in Bradford. I have a guy there that I tend to get a lot of it from, but it depends on the season and what I can get from who. But Ontario is my focus. The more local the better.
Sometimes I’ll go down and get strawberries from Barrie Hill Farms in Barrie. I have local meat people. I have local syrup people and honey people and greenhouse people. I’ve been buying all winter from a local greenhouse around here. We also do a lot of seafood. My pickerel comes from Lake Erie. My rainbow trout comes from Georgian Bay. I also sell Milford Bay smoked trout from Milford Bay down by Bracebridge. I get local eggs from Port Sydney, just south of Huntsville.
And I should mention that one of our local maple syrup guys, Hubbert’s Maple, has won the world championships for maple syrup like three years in a row. We have a lot of really great things up here.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Because we’re a food store, we were able to stay open. It actually meant we were open more days. Last year, during the winter, we were only open two days a week. But when the pandemic hit in March, there was more and more need because people weren’t travelling, they were staying more local. So, we were open seven days a week right through to January. Then we went down to six days a week because we all needed a bit of a break.
The other thing it did was broaden our customer base significantly because a lot of people sold their homes and retired up here, and were looking for a place to buy their produce and groceries. Local tourism really helped drive it, which was great because we have a very large American customer base and this was the first summer in their lives that they didn’t get to come to their cottages. In the summertime, we probably lost 50 per cent of our customer base because of that. But the new people coming in helped make up for it.
What does the future look like for Algonquin Fine Foods?
We just launched our online store, which is pretty exciting. We haven’t got it quite tweaked just yet, but we’re moving in the right direction. It’s just the clothing to start with, but if we can make it happen, we may branch out and start putting the food on there as well. But that’s a big learning curve and a lot of backend stuff.
We’ve also always been pretty basic when it comes to the way we handle things in the store. We just have a regular cash register, and we’re having to scale all that up right now. We would also like to expand the store. We’re in the middle of seeing if that can happen right now, but I don’t have all the irons in the fire just yet.
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