Syrupy salvation: How the pandemic revived Quebec’s cabanes à sucre

After being unable to open dining rooms for two seasons, the old-fashioned industry now has an online presence and new offerings.

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As cabane à sucre operators across Quebec open their dining rooms for the first time since the start of the pandemic, they’re crediting COVID-19 with revitalizing their industry.

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The cabane à sucre experience — eating beans and ham; sitting with strangers at long, communal tables; riding through the snow on tractors; and enjoying tire d’érable — was in decline before the pandemic.

But two years of confinement forced the industry to reinvent its business model. Some now say it’s more durable.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years,” said Camélie Gingras, the manager of La Goudrelle cabane à sucre in Mont-Saint-Grégoire. “When I told my 84-year-old grandfather that we were going to prepare boxed meals for online orders, I can tell you that he looked at me quizzically.”

Gingras and other owners credit the online retail platform, Ma Cabane à la Maison, which was created by the Association des Cabanes à sucre du Québec and launched in February 2021, with revitalizing the sector.

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Owners can now sell their products online year-round. They can also opt for a hybrid model: Reopening for an indoor dining experience at reduced rates while also selling takeout meals.

“People who didn’t go to cabanes à sucre before the pandemic now order our meals to eat home,” Gingras said. “It’s a beautiful opportunity for us.

Stéphanie Laurin, president of the Association des cabanes à sucre du Québec, said the pandemic may have been just what the industry needed to reorganize its tired, lackluster offerings. Before the pandemic, the industry was confronted with an existential threat: nobody wanted to take over these aging businesses.

Ten years ago, there were more than 200 cabanes à sucre across Quebec. This figure, according to Laurin, fell to around 140 during the pandemic.

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“We were stuck in our old habits and traditions and didn’t dare to evolve,” said Laurin, who also manages the Chalet des Érables cabane à sucre in the Laurentians.

“The pandemic made us realize that we’d stagnate while society was at a point where we needed online stores and to make things accessible.”

Around 70 sugar shacks united for the Macabane à la maison initiative.
Around 70 sugar shacks united for the Macabane à la maison initiative. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Over an eight-week period last year, the association estimates that its online platform generated $11.5 million in revenue for participating businesses. Laurin adds that 75 per cent of customers surveyed said they wanted the online store to become a permanent offering, even if dining rooms reopen.

“We were shocked to learn that,” she said. “We’ve written a new chapter in the history of Quebec’s cabanes à sucre.”

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Of the 70 businesses that participated in the project in 2021, Laurin said 50 decided to take part this year.

Mélanie Charbonneau, the co-owner of Érablière Charbonneau in Mont-St-Grégoire, is one of them. The province only authorized the reopening of dining rooms at the beginning of the cabane à sucre season. Charbonneau thought it prudent to take a hybrid approach.

“You can’t reopen a cabane à sucre with just a few weeks notice,” she said. “You need a plan. These meals in metal boxes are like insurance.”

By selling products online, she says, her business is more viable than before the pandemic.

“When people can’t make a reservation or get to a dining room, they buy take-out meals. There’s a real demand. It’s here for good, in my opinion. That’s one positive from the pandemic.”

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Pierre Gingras, co-owner of Grillade in St-Alphonse-de-Granby, said the hybrid model allows him to worry less about labor shortages that were aggravated by the pandemic.

According to Gingras, it is particularly difficult to find workers for cabanes à sucre because the season usually runs from February to April. Moreover, the sector has to compete for workers with restaurants throughout the province.

Laurin said the combination of dining room service and takeout meals is the path to success for cabanes à sucre.

“Netflix doesn’t prevent movie theaters from existing,” she noted, by way of a comparison. “One encourages the other.

“Why can’t people order a meal while also enjoying a meal in a cabane à sucre during the season?”

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