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An architect of community

A surfer, a mother and an entrepreneur, Sarah Zed lives near the waves in rural Nova Scotia, where she’s built a small community around Rose & Rooster, her bakery-café.

Text — Catherine Bernier
Photos — Catherine Bernier & Jillian Cluet

It’s pizza night at Sarah and Jeff’s place. Like every other Friday, they invite friends from the neighbourhood (before the pre-pandemic, of course, when this was allowed). Jeff is kneading the dough when I arrive, Sarah is giving her eldest, Roan, a snack, and Timo, the new baby, is snuggled in a carrier against his mama’s chest. The owners of the bakery-café Rose & Rooster—RoRoo to those in the know—are wonderful hosts.

Gathering people together around simple, local ingredients is the secret to the Rose & Rooster’s success. Located in Grand Desert, an Acadian village in the Halifax regional municipality, it is first and foremost a hub for the community.

You’re guaranteed to run into people from the village every time you stop by. And invariably, you leave filled up, with generous portions and conversations that stretch on from the doorway.

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This is the kind of place all villages depend on.

R&R started in 2011, shortly after Sarah and Jeff, both surfers, met in the water. “I was completely charmed by her movements. Not many people can surf that well on a longboard,” Jeff says, both hands covered in flour. I can understand his admiration for Sarah: the last time I saw her in the water, she was carefully positioning herself in a hang five at the edge of her board—a tricky maneuver that clearly demonstrates her level of experience.

Before moving to the village Sarah lived in the Canadian West, building her love for snowboarding, mountain biking, and surfing. She attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design and worked part-time in an outdoor gear store. On weekends she went surfing in Tofino or Washington state. After finishing her degree, not knowing yet what kind of job she wanted, Sarah joined a friend’s summer project, teaching surfing at a camp for women in California. “We lived in a van and spent all day in the water. It was the good life.” In 2004 she decided to pursue a Master degree of Architecture, Environmental Design at Dalhousie University in Halifax—a choice that also took into account her proximity to the waves.

“At that time in my life, I was spending nearly all my time on school and surfing. I hadn’t really found my place in Halifax, and I didn’t really socialize around the sport. To be honest, I kind of felt isolated. I had to make a change.”

For the first time Sarah felt the need to be anchored. She wanted to find a place close to home where she could surf, and also become involved in a community.

“I thought that if I were to shift my attitude and commit to a place, I would be able to find my place in it.” For Sarah, finding her place is above all a process of developing reciprocity with her environment and those who already live there.

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Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and having grown up in Ottawa—her parents worked in international development—Sarah had never lived outside of a city.  “I simply didn’t know how to meet people: I didn’t have a dog to help with interactions on the beach, and no kids to put me in contact with other women. Social media wasn’t around yet, and I felt shy about inviting strangers over without a reason.”

Sarah and Jeff were convinced that comforting food would be a good way to build relationships, and threw themselves into bread and pastry making—as well as offering up an excellent cup of coffee. They sold their products once a month at the village market, which was held in the community hall. But it still wasn’t enough.

“It’s not the building itself that helps with creating community relationships, but the creation of a space-time that leaves room for people to spontaneously run into each other,” Sarah believes.

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In search of a place where they could settle permanently, she and Jeff finally found the old Grand Desert co-op store—a place full of stories that still make the elders talk. 

The building was run down and the ceilings were very low, but the two of them, armed with patience and virtual knowledge gleaned from YouTube, were able to create a bright and inviting space.

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“We wanted the people who grew up here—the older ones as well as the younger ones—to feel welcome,” Sarah tells me. Today the space has a play area for kids, a long table for meals with family or friends, a counter for freelancers and their laptops, and also offers board games and prepared meals for takeout. It also has a few surfer essentials thrown in: board wax and copies of the magazine Surfer Journal.

It took several years before they fine-tuned the mechanics of their little business. Sarah spent whole days here for a long time, setting aside her  private architectural practice and surfing. After Roan was born she hired her first chef, Krista. This decision led to a series of helpful changes for the new parents. In addition to providing precious emotional help, “Krista coordinates the whole menu. It’s based on seasonal availability—some of the vegetables come from Jeff’s garden. He has a passion for permaculture.” 

When Roan started going to daycare, it freed up even more time for Sarah and even allowed her and Jeff to go surfing together again.

“Otherwise, surfing was something we had to negotiate. We spelled each other off at work, in parenting, and in surf sessions. The way things are organized now relieves much of that tension.”

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To live and support a business in Grand Desert, Sarah and Jeff have taken on side jobs. Like many other residents, they count on the revenue from their Airbnb and their garden, especially once the winter lull sets in. “My accountant always asks me: are you sure you want to stay open in January and February? I answer yes every time, because that’s the very essence of the business. We don’t want to be seasonal. It’s our commitment to the community that lives here year-round!” It saddens her to think of the inhabitants of tourist villages whose business trickles away at the same time visitors do.

Even though the winters are hard, Sarah has managed to create a daily life that aligns with her values. “I like being able to make my schedule around my family, the waves, and coffee. For the moment, these are the things that make me happy.”

Sarah finds herself at a turning point: her business can very nearly run itself now, she’s coming to the end of her second maternity leave (to the extent that women entrepreneurs get one at all), and she’s starting to think about other projects. “We’ll see where I’m at with Timo in the next few months, but I’d like to become more involved in the community of women surfers.”

Sarah is humbly aware of her status as elder, and of the positive influence she could have on others. Above all, she is very familiar with the pressures women encounter around surfing.

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“The reality is that they’re the ones who usually stay home to take care of the family. It’s really hard for a mother to put her own pleasure ahead of the kids, because they’ll always be the priority. We feel really guilty. We need the support of our partners and the support of other women to change this paradigm.” Sarah wants to create opportunities for women to gather and support each other without judgment. “On the west coast of Canada, there are a number of things in place to help them in their practice. They have access to coaches. Here, it’s not something that’s integrated into surf culture, which is still young.” Last year Sarah invited a coach from California to give surf clinics at the R&R. She’s planning to do it again this year. “Giving women the chance to come together to learn and improve and reinforce their independence is something that really gets me going!”

There’s still a lot of work to do in the community, in the water as onshore. In a rural setting, distance grants a certain independence, but also means that people need to make an extra effort to build relationships.

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How will Sarah’s plans take shape in an uncertain post-lockdown context? When I last heard from her, she remained optimistic. She’s taking care of her family and making sure the café can sustain its community mission. Jeff is using the time to expand the garden. Things look promising! For the moment, take-out meals—packaged in biodegradable containers (amen!)—and the gradual re-opening of R&R are a balm to our weary hearts. The community is slowly coming back to life.

Freelance writer and photographer Catherine Bernier also holds degrees in Counselling Psychology and teaching meditation. She uses her creativity to awaken people to self-awareness, on both the collective and the environmental levels. Originally from Gaspésie, she has a special relationship with the ocean and the vast wilderness that has shaped her relationship to photography from the start. Her refuge, an off-grid cabin in Nova Scotia, allows her to align her values with her passion: surfing!

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