Quebec sugar shack owners say COVID-19 pandemic saved the iconic industry

By Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press

Sugar shack owners across Quebec are reopening their dining rooms for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 the melting snow and nibbling snow-chilled maple syrup on wooden sticks — was on the decline before the pandemic. But two years of COVID-19 lockdowns have forced the traditional industry to reinvent an outdated business model, and some say it is more sustainable than before the health crisis hit.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years,” Camélie Gingras, manager of sugar shack La Goudrelle in Mont-St-Grégoire, Que., southeast of Montreal, said 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 his face.”

Gingras and other owners of sugar shacks — know as cabanes à sucres in French — credit the industry’s resurgence to an online retail platform launched in February 2021 that allows them to sell take-home versions of the traditional spring meals. Created by the association that represents the province’s sugar shacks, the platform — Ma Cabane à la Maison — ended up reinventing the experience.

Sugar shack owners can now sell their products online year-round. They can also run a hybrid model: reopen for a limited indoor dining experience — with lower overhead costs — and sell take-home meals as well.

“People who didn’t go 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 exactly what Quebec sugar shacks needed to revamp their staid, traditional offerings, Stéphanie Laurin, chair of the industry association, said in a recent interview. Before the pandemic, the industry was facing an existential threat: mom-and-pop owners were getting old and had no one to take over the business.

Ten years ago, there were more than 200 sugar shacks across Quebec, but that number had dropped to about 140 before the pandemic, Laurin said.

“We were caught in our old ways and traditions, and we didn’t dare to evolve,” said Laurin, who also manages Chalet des Érables sugar shack north of Montreal.

“The pandemic made us realize we had stagnated while society was at a place where we needed online stores and for things to be accessible.”

Last year, the association estimates the online platform generated $11.5 million in revenue for participating businesses over an eight-week period. As well, Laurin said 75 per cent of customers surveyed said they wanted the online store to be permanent — even if dining rooms were permitted to reopen.

“We were flabbergasted to know that,” Laurin said. “We wrote a new chapter of Quebec sugar shack history!”

Out of 70 operations that participated in the online platform in 2021, 50 decided to remain this year, she said.

Mélanie Charbonneau, co-owner of Érablière Charbonneau, in Mont-St-Grégoire, Que., is one of them. She said when the provincial government gave the green light to reopen dine-in services this year, it was near the start of the sugar shack season. It felt safer, she said, to adopt a hybrid model.

“You can’t reopen a sugar shack with only a few weeks’ notice,” Charbonneau said in a recent interview. “You need to plan. Having the boxed meals is like having insurance.” Charbonneau said the online platform allows her to sell her products all year and has made her business more profitable than before COVID-19 hit.

“When people see there’s no room or can’t make a reservation for the dining room, they buy a meal to take home 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, Que., the hybrid model means he can worry less about labour shortages made worse by the pandemic. It is particularly difficult for sugar shacks to find staff, he said, because the traditional season is from February to the end of April and the industry is competing with restaurants across the province for workers.

Laurin said a model combining dining room and takeout meals is the most sustainable route for the province’s sugar shacks.

“Just because Netflix exists doesn’t mean the cinema has no place,” she said. “One encourages the other, so why not have people ordering a boxed meal and also have the dining room to experience maple season in two different ways.”

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