Bringing Quebec cuisine home: Sugar shacks sell gourmet kits in bid for survival
TORONTO -- With many of Quebec’s iconic sugar shacks at risk of permanently closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of them have come together to launch a gourmet meal box initiative they hope will help keep their traditional businesses alive for another year.
“[The sugar shacks are] a traditional thing that Quebecers have been doing for years. This is to celebrate the coming of the spring. This is why we celebrate so hard,” said Daniel Laurin, co-owner of Chalet Des Erables, a popular Quebec sugar shack in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Que. that has been in the family for 75 years.
His business lost some $300,000 worth of revenue in the first month of the pandemic last year, when COVID-19 lockdowns hit at the height of the sugar shack season. Many others have already gone bankrupt.
“So far we’ve lost 50 members of our association. If we hadn’t done anything, we would’ve lost I think maybe 50 or 75 per cent more,” Laurin told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.
The sugar shacks are primarily seasonal restaurants that typically open in March and April. They are a part of the province’s enormous maple syrup industry, but unlike the producers, maple syrup production makes up only a very small fraction of their income.
The Quebec government has said the sugar shack industry is eligible under a subsidy program where they can be reimbursed up to $15,000 per month for fixed costs, but has Laurin said that's too little, too late. Laurin, who had to sell his home and assets to pay the bills, says he can accept losing his house, but not his business. “It has been in my family too long.”
As the pandemic enters its second year, a group of some 70 sugar shacks, including Laurin, have united for the project, Ma cabane à la maison, or My Cabin At Home. The project gives Quebecers a chance to bring the traditional Quebec cuisine experience home -- and a chance for the sugar shack businesses to survive. It is the brainchild of Laurin’s daughter, who began working on the project six months earlier.
Orders can be picked up at participating sugar shacks, with some offering home delivery. They can also be picked up at Metro grocery stores, who aren’t charging a penny, Laurin says.
The boxes, which are only available in-province due to shipping costs, offer a number of traditional sugar shack favourites, including maple ham, oreilles de crisse (crispy pork rinds), baked beans and of course, maple syrup. Customers can choose whether they want to simply reheat or cook the meals themselves.
The group has sold 25,000 boxes so far in a single week, says Laurin. With their next chance at bringing in revenue a year away, a lot is riding on the project’s success.
“The Population is behind us. We are very, very proud. This brings a little light to the end of the tunnel. Because this has been a terrible year,” Laurin said. “Buy as many boxes as [you] can. That money will help us survive another year.”
With files from CTV News Montreal's Christine Long and Adam Kovac