Quebec sugar shack owners say COVID-19 pandemic saved iconic industry
MONTREAL — Sugar shack owners across Quebec are reopening their dining rooms for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and strangely they are crediting the novel coronavirus with revitalizing their industry.
The spring sugar shack experience — eating beans and ham at long tables with strangers, enjoying tractor rides through slush, and nibbling icy maple syrup on wooden sticks — was on the decline. before the pandemic. But two years of COVID-19 lockdown has forced the traditional industry to reinvent an outdated business model, and some say it’s more sustainable than before the health crisis.
“We’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years,” said Camélie Gingras, manager of La Goudrelle sugar shack in Mont-St-Grégoire, southeast of Montreal, in a recent interview. “When I told my 84-year-old grandfather that we were going to do boxed meals for online orders, I can tell you, oh boy, he looked at me with a question mark on the face.
Gingras and other owners of sugar shacks – known as sugar shacks in French – attribute the resurgence of the industry to an online retail platform launched in February 2021 that allows them to sell versions at take away traditional spring meals. Created by the association that represents sugar shacks in the province, the platform — Ma Cabane à la Maison — ended up reinventing the experience.
Sugar shack owners can now sell their products online all year round. They can also run a hybrid model: reopening for a limited indoor dining experience – with reduced overhead – and also selling take-out meals.
“People who weren’t going to sugar shacks before the pandemic are now ordering our meals to eat at home,” Gingras said. “It’s such a great opportunity for us.”
The pandemic might have been just what Quebec sugar shacks needed to revamp their traditional, stilted offerings, said Stephanie Laurin, president of the industry association, in a recent interview. Before the pandemic, the industry faced an existential threat: family owners were aging and had no one to take over the business.
A decade ago, there were more than 200 sugar shacks across Quebec, but that number had dropped to around 140 before the pandemic, Laurin said.
“We were stuck in our old ways and traditions, and we didn’t dare to evolve,” said Laurin, who also manages the Chalet des Érables sugar shack north of Montreal.
“The pandemic made us realize that we had stagnated while society was at a place where we needed online stores and things to be accessible.”
Last year, the association estimates that the online platform generated $11.5 million in revenue for participating businesses over an eight-week period. Additionally, Laurin said 75% of customers surveyed said they wanted the online store to be permanent — even if dining rooms were allowed to reopen.
“We were flabbergasted to know that,” Laurin said. “We have written a new chapter in the history of the sugar shack in Quebec!”
Of 70 operations that participated in the online platform in 2021, 50 decided to stay this year, she said.
Mélanie Charbonneau, co-owner of Érablière Charbonneau, in Mont-St-Grégoire, Qc, is one of them. She said when the provincial government gave the green light to reopen dine-in services this year, it was almost the start of sugar shack season. It felt safer, she said, to adopt a hybrid model.
“You can’t reopen a sugar shack with just a few weeks notice,” Charbonneau said in a recent interview. “You have to plan. Having boxed meals is like having insurance.” Charbonneau said the online platform allows him to sell his products year-round and has made his business more profitable than before COVID-19 hit.
“When people see there’s no room or can’t make reservations for the dining room, they buy a take-out meal instead,” Charbonneau said. “There’s a real demand and I think it’s here to stay. It’s a positive note we can take from the pandemic.”
For Pierre Gingras, co-owner of La Grillade sugar shack in St-Alphonse-de-Granby, Quebec, the hybrid model allows him to worry less about labor shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s especially difficult for sugar shacks to find staff, he said, because the traditional season is from February to late April and the industry competes with restaurants across the province for workers.
Laurin said a model combining dine-in and take-out is the most sustainable path for the province’s sugar shacks.
“Just because Netflix exists doesn’t mean cinema doesn’t have a place,” she said. “One encourages the other, so why not ask people to order a box lunch and also have the dining room to experience maple season in two different ways.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 13, 2022.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press