Greg heard on CBC Radio that they were looking for positive stories so he asked me to write a feel-good story for the CBC about our experiences, and that of our company Brooks Pepperfire Foods.
I certainly don’t feel very good, so I said, How am I supposed to write a feel-good story? He said, “Share the hope that we feel”.
So here is my hopeful tale. (Note: CBC did not respond so we are publishing now April 5, 7 days later).
When this began for us, we were starting our best business year in many! The outbreak was no big deal. It was being downplayed and people were going about their daily business. We noticed in early February that some big local manufacturers were tightening their grip on glass supplies (China is the biggest supplier) that were already in warehouses making less glass available to small manufacturers like ourselves.
The Peppermaster’s oldest son Rudi Brooks, of Rudi’s Hot Sauce in Halifax, sells his sauces that he makes with our team here in Rigaud, in Halifax’s Seaport Market.
His kiosk there serves both the local farmers’ market and cruise ship, tourists. He had just leased a commercial storage space and his wife had quit a very lucrative career in headhunting to work with Rudi in his business.
Rudi and Julianne took a break at a slow time in their year in Costa Rica, recovering from a non-stop busy period from September to January. The outbreak becoming scarier and scarier as time went by. They contacted family to decide whether to sit tight or cut short their holiday. They made arrangements to hang out there for the duration of this ‘flu’.
And then Sophie Gregoire was diagnosed and Prime Minister Trudeau said. “If you are a Canadian, abroad, at this time, it is time to come home. They were coming home.
It was then we knew this was really serious.
Rudi and Julianne arrived home a few days ago and are in self-isolation.
Many of our corporate customers started warning us of reduced orders, 50% of forecasts, and the future began to look grim as dark storm clouds filled the horizon. Major shows we sell at like Manger Santé in Montreal and One of a Kind in Toronto started cancelling. Peppermaster grew up sailing his little boat in the Bahamas and he said “When the wind picks up and your racing towards a string of coral reefs that is not the time to freak out. Wait until you are on the other side. Thank god he knows how to skipper with a steady hand on the tiller.
I am Actually Autistic and I don’t deal well with minor changes, never mind major upheaval. So just breathing has been a major challenge for me. I don’t believe I have ever felt more truly afraid in my life.
Yet, life goes on.
Like Rudi and Julianne, we are in food manufacturing. So, unlike my neighbour Claudine who owns a very busy dress shop, I am allowed and encouraged to continue doing business as we have been classified by Quebec as an essential service. And so we are.
We have built our little company largely around the ideas of real good, real food. The words Slow Food, Fairtrade and Organic Certified get bounced around our office an awful lot and so do the words ‘local food security’. We feared this day would come eventually, but here it is suddenly today.
Working with the eco-local food Coop marche.csur.ca we have been providing local supports for food producers and the consumer-members are providing my little company with a continued outlet for food sales. We use a systematic problem-solving system within our business and have been using HACCP (food safety) systems and ISO standards for years and we are deeply integrated with supply chains, truckers, and various food channels. We used these communication lines to find out where we actually stand. And although I am still very afraid, I am now calm and I can function, and am able to share this story.
Perhaps our tale can help alleviate others’ concerns. The fear is palpable.
We are in a unique situation where our company is our tenant and we are the landlord. Our main mortgage is private and held by a long time personal friend.
We are also in the unique position that neither my husband nor I qualify for UI and we have 8 employees.
Understanding that self-isolation and staying home go hand in hand, we decided to close our outlet store to retail visitors. We do have a large regular clientele but we also function as a chilli pepper interpretation center for tourists all year round. So we decided to shift focus to drive traffic to our website and we could deliver or they could pick up at our front door where we have set up an exterior counter we call the Pepper Bar.
We are discussing how to get a complete product display (150 unique items) into the window of our shop or onto the front deck so customers can still see what we make. We are tweaking out our website and trying to figure out a pathway through this new reality.
We work with over twenty different food artisan companies (or brands) of varying sizes, some who sell a few thousand dollars worth of product a year and some who sell many tens of thousands. Our own Peppermaster brand does a steady business which has allowed us to build our little local manufacturing hub.
Having spoken with our benefactor, our accountant and our bankers, we have discovered that we may just survive this situation. There is great satisfaction in learning you have a solid support network. Kudos to Susan, the TD, the BDC, all of our corporate clients, and our many loyal customers who are showing their support and buying local.
Without the many hundreds of small food companies in Quebec continuing to make and grow foods where would we be if supply chains from China, Italy and the USA become broken?
We thank socially responsible endeavours like Lufa Farms here in Montreal who are bending over backwards to ensure that local foods, including ours, get to the families that need them as people understand more and more the importance of local food security. You don’t just by local foods to be supportive of people near you, it’s so that in times of need we actually HAVE a food lifeline. We all see now that we need to strengthen these lifelines! They are critical.
Our plans going forward include finding new ways to get our own Peppermaster branded products to market but also include ensuring our commercial customers get their orders filled and our local farmers get their produce to market as ingredients in the products we make.
We received three very interesting contacts this week that tells us that things are looking up and forward movement is happening.
The first request came from MAPAQ looking for companies that generate compostable by-products that can be used to manufacture hand sanitizer. We have looked into this before and the biggest issue with our compostables has been the high quantity of citrus. So, unlike others seeking compostables for whatever reason, ours suddenly aren’t too acid to be used.
The second contact came from Sagami Savoura BIO through a supplier of ours La Ferme Natura. They, like us, have closed their retail sales counter for organic tomatoes, and have decided to not allow any pickups. This created a surplus of local fresh organic tomatoes! Booyah! I usually have to import tomatoes at this time of year! Yeah for us!
The third contact and the most exciting came from Lufa Farms. As an online grocer, they found, like the bricks and mortars stores, that demand was strong and their inventory was being decimated and they began ramping up orders. We expect to launch several new products through their network over the coming weeks.
Our research into this situation shows that it may take many months before anything adapts to the new normal, whatever that will be. So, in anticipation of this new normal, we are going to pimp out all the ways that we direct-sell and connect with our customers and keep our food manufacturing going as long as the supply chains allow.
People may be quarantined and isolated, but they still need to eat. We all hear about health care workers, public transit, police, hydro workers and grocery or pharmacy workers. Let’s not forget about those who actually make the food we buy in those stores. We have given $2/hr extra to our long time kitchen staff to thank them for continuing to work under such strenuous conditions…
So kudos to our employees for still coming to work as everyone is told over and over again to stay home. Without them and many others making food for Quebecers and Canadians, as they endure the harsh glares of those in their homes and feel somehow guilty as they leave for work securing food for the dinner tables of those very same people. They want to be at home too, protecting and safeguarding their loved ones.
Especially when we have fear all around us it is important to step forward and do what needs to be done. Just like an old fashioned war, if we ALL stayed home, well, that just doesn’t work.
Step up. Do what you can.
So here we are. Doing what we can.