Monday, November 21, 2011

A Niagara ex-pat's local food plea

By Suzanne Taylor, guest blogger, sassy foodie 

Moving to a new place is never easy, of course. There are people that enjoy it, I know, but I am not one of those people. I moved across the street once and I didn’t even like that. I am a St. Catharines girl, born and bred, and if I had my way I’d still live in my childhood bungalow, really. I’ve moved a lot in my life for someone who doesn’t like moving, and the experience does not improve with time or practice.

Upon receiving the news in the spring of 2010 that we would be relocating from St. Catharines to Owen Sound, a place I had never been, I didn’t react with great joy. I knew very little about Owen Sound except that it was northern and cold and was rumoured to have terrible winters.

But, it was the food snob angle that was my biggest hang up about this move. My husband and I are enthusiastic wine and food people, and could often be found in a Niagara winery or restaurant, eating and/or drinking something wonderful. The amazing foodie culture is what we love most about Niagara, and we spent our time eating and drinking the bounty that is Niagara, and sourcing the best local ingredients.

I started to worry when we moved to Owen Sound and I realized that if you ask a local for a restaurant recommendation, he or she would immediately name one of several local Chinese buffet-style restaurants. Pardon me while I barf.

I worried further about finding good local produce and ingredients. After all, we were members of my beloved Linda Crago’s Tree and Twig Heirloom CSA and would feel the absence of her amazing vegetable bounty quite keenly. I was used to buying my organic, drug and hormone-free meats via Pilgrim’s in downtown St. Catharines, and I sure as heck was not returning to eating grocery store meat; I’d turn vegetarian first. Ick! We’d sure as heck miss the amazing St. Catharines and Welland farmers markets, too.

Thankfully, we’ve found most of what we needed to live up here. While we usually still have to leave town to eat out the way we like to (thank you Collingwood and Thornbury!), there are two CSAs producing quality local vegetables, there is a lovely little winery producing VQA wines called Coffin Ridge, a well-stocked farmer’s market on Saturdays, a wonderful butcher just outside of town that provides me with quality grass-fed, organic, hormone-free meat, and most blessed of all, there was Around the Sound.

Around the Sound was a local food market devoted to sourcing ingredients solely for the 100-mile diet. It was, in simple terms, foodie paradise. It had everything you could possibly want to eat sourced from local producers: fresh produce, a wide variety of meats, including game meats, freezer goodies, herbs, nuts, soaps, cosmetics, honey, canned foods, jellies, jams, breads, pastries, teas, popcorn, pickles, cheeses, eggs, tofu, olive oil, flour, milk — well, you get the general idea. You essentially didn’t need a grocery store when this store was around.

It even had a little community kitchen that had just opened in the back, offering cooking classes and a soon-to-be-ready cafe. In short, it was the coolest store you could possibly imagine in a little town where gourmet food wasn’t exactly the norm. And for a couple of local eaters like my husband and I, it was paradise.

Anne Finlay-Stewart, the owner, would even get in Niagara peaches in August for a little taste of home. We were devoted to Around the Sound and shopped there every week; if there was something you were looking for, Anne would find it for you. Every week, Anne would email what was new in Around the Sound and it was always some great, delicious dinner idea or treat.

Mmm, Niagara peaches.

Unfortunately, I opened my email at 5 a.m. on a cold April morning this year to learn that Around the Sound had been destroyed by fire the night before, thanks to careless smoking in the apartments above the store. (Smoking inspection can only be described as Rather Lax in Owen Sound; the apartment building we moved to was missing its No Smoking signs unless I phoned the region and voiced an urgent complaint).

Anne and her staff lost $24,000 of stock in this devastating fire and are still trying to sort out their insurance claim as of this writing. The building it was housed in is set to be torn down as it is beyond any kind of repair.

To date, Anne and company have not found a suitable new store location, as there is very little zoned for grocery in Owen Sound that is affordable and they haven’t got the cash to restart the business from scratch.

Anne estimates that she invested $50,000 in setting up and promoting the store, paying wages, advertising. That money is now essentially lost and she doesn’t have any willing investors helping her to get her business back on its feet.

In order to recreate Around the Sound, she would essentially have to work for free for a long time to recoup the lost money and nobody can really blame her for not wanting to do that. Right now the future of Around the Sound is very much a mystery, unless there are willing investors, which is hard to come by in a town without much industry and a lot of small businesses, who are interested in having the store return. The local government has not been very helpful in Around the Sound’s plight and are mysteriously silent on the subject when asked about it. I’ve tried.

Thankfully, there is a local movement afoot to help rebuild the store, under the direction of a local naturopathic doctor, Kathleen Finlay (no relation to Anne), to help Anne repay the store’s debts before setting about rebuilding. There is a contest to win a gift card for whoever finds the store’s new location. No easy feat — I’ve suggested three locations myself and none are suitable!

To date more than $7,000 has been raised, including an incredible $1,000-donation from the local farmers union.

So, my beloved Niagarans, whom I miss very keenly, I implore you. If you are interested in helping an amazing 100-mile Ontario food business devastated by fire return to work and in turn support 130 local producers, farmers, bakers, cooks and gardeners, you can make a donation to their cause by snail mail only. Cheques must be payable to Anne Finlay-Stewart and can be sent to 642 3rd Ave. East, Owen Sound, ON, N4K, 2K1.

I realize it’s a ways away from you all, but you are always welcome to visit me up here on the bay, and you’d be making a donation to a truly amazing store, and in turn, making a soul donation to a pair of relocated Niagara foodies who sorely miss their cool 100-mile food market and want it back something awful.

Click here to read Suzanne's other guest post Muhziks* make the people come together
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