When Byron Gourley first purchased a beautiful heritage home in Hillsborough, he envisioned an art studio in his future, not a grocery store. He and his life partner had been living in Moncton, but sought a larger home that afforded space to expand his artistic endeavours. Although it needed work, the Hillsborough house was an incredible deal. Too good to pass up. They hired a local contractor to start the repairs.
“Then I fell in love with the people,” Gourley says. “The warmth and welcoming we received…our neighbours brought us welcoming gifts. In Moncton, we didn’t even know our neighbours.”
In discussions with neighbours and workers, he heard how much residents missed the grocery store that closed in 2019. In his role as an economic development officer for Metepenagiag First Nation, he brought in businesses to meet the needs of the community. Now, he saw a niche that could be filled in Hillsborough.
After his plans went public, he was both floored and encouraged by a tsunami of community response. Facebook exploded with enthusiastic comments. Former grocery store employees contacted him hoping to be hired back. Someone sent him a photo of what the building once looked like and he wants to eventually restore the original look.
“Everyone I’ve hired for renovation work was from the community. Even neighbours came down to help. Jeff Cooke sent his staff with a forklift and loader to help me unload, even offered to help me hire staff.”
Gourley hoped to open in September, but no one was manufacturing equipment during COVID. Sobeys offered to ship refrigeration, cashier stations and shelving from a store that was closing in Saskatchewan, but he’d have to wait until the new year. So he pushed plans forward, but wants the public to know that COVID may have slowed the opening, but has not diminished his plans or enthusiasm. “I want to see Main Street revitalized,” he says. “It will take time, but in five years you’ll see a big change in Hillsborough.”
As stated, proper economic development meets the needs of the community. When COVID first shut down all but essential services, many Hillsborough residents discovered how much they could buy locally. In the first few months, Cooke’s Quick Mart converted hardware shelves to common grocery items, and Oliver's German Bakery supplied meat, eggs, flour and winter vegetables, in addition to baked goods.
In the months to come, we gained a greater appreciation for the services our local businesses provided; especially for the options of dining out. As businesses slowly reopened, take-out orders from Rocco’s Cucina, Cinnamon Soul Café, The Railway Diner and The Hills Restaurant provided variety to home cooking. When indoor dining re- opened, these were a welcome change of scenery.
Pre-COVID, the family-owned Cinnamon Soul Café and Bakery—operated by Joe and Heather Mitchell, and their daughter, Brittney Hawkins—was already a popular gathering place for locals all year, and a busy stop for tourist traffic in summer. Its combination of Asian fusion, Greek, and Mediterranean cuisine and desserts, with weekly specials as varied as Newfoundland Jiggs dinner or lamb, appealed to a wide range of diners who appreciate meals made from local ingredients.
“Everything shut down in March, and we stayed closed till June. But then, business was almost right back to where we’d been. Local support was amazing,” says Joe Mitchell. He also saw an upsurge in seniors meeting for coffee and family groups sharing special meals. Although food supply had become tenuous, Cinnamon Soul had an advantage because their family farm produces many of their ingredients.
It was still challenging keeping abreast of public health requirements as well as the uncertainty of demand. “You don’t know how to prepare, you don’t know how many groceries, and if you don’t get enough, it means more trips to town,’ says Mitchell. But local entrepreneurs worked together, and this helped considerably in those first uncertain months. Angela MacDougall at Fundy Farm: Local Harvest sold food boxes at the city markets that included Cinnamon Soul products.
“It was a way to keep us going, and shows how businesses worked together to help each other,” Mitchell says. It also helped to have an outdoor patio for those who were still uncomfortable with indoor dining. “A lot of people sit outside when the weather’s good, even into fall and winter.”
Rocco’s Cucina, which had also gained recognition throughout the region for both ambiance and fine dining, re-opened first with take-out, and then indoor dining. Lovers of authentic Italian cuisine sought flavourful artisan pizzas, pasta, panini, Rocco’s signature arancino, daily specials and decadent desserts within the cozy, intimate atmosphere.
The Railway Diner, a popular family restaurant and meeting place for small groups, continued offering hot and cold sandwiches and wraps, fish and chips, fried chicken, burger platters, soups and salads at affordable prices.
Just down the road, Tanya Fisher and Jason Pugh, owners of Hillsborough Golf Club and The Hills Restaurant, were unsure what to expect in 2020, or whether they’d even be able to operate. But despite a last minute scramble, they opened on time. Although they had to reduce capacity in the restaurant by 50% and cancel larger events and weddings, they enjoyed two very good years.
“I think people were growing more and more tired of being cooped up at home,” says Pugh. “Many were taking advantage of any place they could visit to get out of the house for a bit.”
He says running a small business in a small community has its share of challenges, and even more so in the past two years. They experienced some supply chain issues, but the pricing increase in food items was more difficult to manage. Regardless, “We’ve been very fortunate since we started our business to have a tremendous amount of support from the community…not only with people coming in to eat or golf, but also with helping us with countless projects that have helped our business grow. It has been very humbling.”
An increase in traffic at White Rock Recreational Area spilled over to the restaurant and hungry customers piled in after a day on the trails to enjoy hearty grass-fed Angus beef burgers on brioche buns, fresh Fundy seafood (including seafood chowder from a secret family recipe), delicious appetizers, New York style cheesecakes, or a cold drink on the deck overlooking the course.
“We have a great relationship with the Codiac Cycling Trails group and they have been very supportive of the restaurant for a number of years and the great work they are doing is certainly driving a tremendous amount of traffic to our community that we all benefit from,” says Pugh. “The last two years we’ve seen an even bigger increase with people wanting to ‘support local’ and I think more and more people are realizing the impact that choosing to spend their money locally has, not only on the business they are supporting, but the community as a whole.”
In late October, Jessica Steeves opened the Wacky Wonderful Waffle ice cream shop on Main Street. She’d already earned a local reputation for her cakes and sweets, but she wanted to expand with ice cream and waffles. “Making sandwiches on waffles would enable us to open all year round,” she says. Opening late in the season gave her a chance to start slowly, but she’s already getting drop-ins from the wider community.
In her storefront on Main Street in Edgetts Landing, Steeves offers ice cream waffles and a variety of chicken, turkey, beef, pulled pork, and donair sandwiches on waffles. “So far, our best sellers are chicken bacon ranch, and donair,” she says. As well, customers can find sweets.
In the best of times, small town restaurants and coffee shops are gathering places in our communities—places where we connect with family and friends while filling our bellies. But in the new pandemic world, these gathering places have taken on greater significance.
They held us together. And we held them together.