June 30, 2020
BODING WELL FOR THE FUTURE
With enviable economic growth into early 2020, Prince Edward Island -- and its flourishing food sector -- experienced rapid shutdown in a few short days with a COVID-19 state of public health emergency declared on March 16th. The impact of the pandemic was swift and daunting, with food processing, agriculture, fisheries, and food services particularly hard hit. However, as the province begins to transition toward recovery, a number of food innovators are not only surviving against tremendous odds but taking creative steps to transform their business, expanding sales online, discovering new ways to serve customers, and developing environmentally friendly solutions in the process.
Anne and Alex Jamieson of Riverdale Orchard and Cidery saw their award-winning artisan-crafted cider sales plummet as bars, restaurants, and liquor retail outlets closed their doors. They quickly pivoted to online sales introducing free delivery across the province and local curbside pickup. With a new social media campaign and professional photography in place, they promoted an expanded line of food products online that is attracting repeat customers to their scenic location in the Bonshaw Hills. "We set up an outside dining area ensuring physical distancing is observed. With picnic takeout options on Thursday through Sunday, our customers can enjoy a glass of chilled cider, a ploughman's lunch, scones, cake, and more at tables overlooking the orchard, or take on a hike or bike ride," says Anne. "Our new business strategy is to use our site as a destination and event space, diversifying into food products which complement our cider and possibly wholesale our food. We'll partner with other local businesses to offer packages, including art classes in our orchard. We're also sourcing local food ingredients such as Glasgow Glen Farm Gouda and Fortune Bridge Brinery Chips whenever possible."
With an artisan Gouda cheese facility and shop in New Glasgow that widely distributed its products across the Island and became a popular experiential food attraction with wood-fired Gouda pizzas, Jeff McCourt's Glasgow Glen Farm lost all but minimal sales with the abrupt shutdown of P.E.I. restaurants and retail spaces. "We all but closed the business, laying off our employees and halting all new production," says McCourt. Now, he's launching a new e-commerce online store to recoup lost sales in his retail shop and devising new products using whey to better maximize the yield on his raw milk supply. “It's completely changed our production plans,” McCourt says. “With the loss of tourists, we're focusing on our local market more, carefully monitoring our expenses, and only making plans one quarter at a time. It's important to stay nimble to address this uncertain climate we're experiencing as it continues to change.”
Robert Van Waarden of Red Island Cider made the decision to shut his Charlottetown tap room at the beginning of the pandemic, but just as quickly developed a website and began delivering directly to customers. “We leased an electric vehicle to reduce our emissions and started delivering across the Island. The local community did a great job of supporting us, and we were kept busy delivering our cider. We had to switch all of our production away from wholesale kegs to bottles, which was time consuming and costly, but thankfully we had systems in place to seamlessly make the transition.”
Van Waarden hears daily from customers who are thrilled with the convenience of home delivery. “The regulation change that allowed us to deliver may have felt groundbreaking to some, but for many of our customers, it was a natural place for P.E.I. to be in 2020. In fact, the disruption of business has produced a number of unexpected outcomes, including more money directly in the pocket of local businesses, added convenience for the consumer, and an essential service to keep people at home. Although our projections are off now, and we'll grow slower than predicted, I think we've proven that with support, we can weather this pandemic and help others do the same.”
Many local companies are hopeful that regulations enacted at the beginning of the pandemic governing home delivery continue to be maintained. Mitch Cobb, C.E.O. of Upstreet Craft Brewing, says that addressing the pandemic by offering home delivery “was a quick pivot for us, and it was really good to connect directly with our customers. It was crazy busy delivering our products directly to people’s homes in April when everyone was staying at home. It's leveled off now, but still provides us with a new and welcome stream of revenue.”
Beer isn’t the only product being produced at Upstreet. “We began making hand sanitizer in April to meet the shortage resulting from COVID-19. This was a quick transition and a good way to hire back staff, weather the storm, and help out the community," says Cobb. "There's a lot to unpack from the pandemic that will definitely impact how we do business in the future. It forced us to operate very lean and look at cutting costs while finding new opportunities. While some strategies will remain the same, we're really looking at the last three months as a way to do things differently.”
Bernie Plourde, Manager of the Charlottetown Farmers' Market Co-operative, agrees. “COVID-19 changed the way we do business. Our last normal market day was March 14th. Our primary producers can't put produce back into the ground, and they also need to organize for the new harvest season," says Plourde. "We were able to turn things around quickly and adapt our business model to an online platform. Going online was an easy decision to make, but harder to implement. We want to get as much profit as possible back into the hands of the folks who grow our food. We hope people will continue buying local.”
The market recently received approval to return as an open air venue. It will operate within the health guidelines of social distancing, frequent sanitizing of high touch areas, and hand washing. “Keeping everyone safe while accessing fresh healthy local food is a priority,” says Plourde. "It will provide more vendors with the opportunity to sell and give shoppers a sense of community."
The strength and ingenuity of the P.E.I. food cluster is demonstrating that even in the most challenging of times, there are opportunities for tenacity, innovation and cooperation throughout the ecosystem. This is encouraging news for those who support the advancement of P.E.I.'s top-quality food products, primary producers and food entrepreneurs. Plus, it bodes well for the long-term future of "Canada's Food Island."
By Magner Ink (www.magnerink.com). This is one in a series of articles on the P.E.I. Food Cluster.