The pandemic nearly killed Québec’s family-run sugar shacks, but the guardians of this centuries-old tradition wouldn’t let it die so easily.
When Québec shut down most businesses during the first wave of the pandemic, in March 2020, it was sugar shack season, and Pierre Faucher, 75, was in the thick of the busiest time of the year.
“It was like I got hit by a right hook from Cassius Clay; my knees bent,” said the jolly, bearded owner of Sucrerie de la Montagne in Rigaud. “Sugar time,” as he calls it, isn’t just the backbone of his business; it’s also a cherished season for connecting with his regular customers — the ones who come back year after year.
Indigenous peoples in North America were the first to tap maple trees for their sap before boiling it down to make sugar. French settlers were taught this tradition and later developed techniques to turn sap into syrup or taffy. The cabane à sucre has since become an emblem of Québec culture.
A maple leaf might be on Canada’s flag, but Québec produces 91 per cent of the country’s maple syrup.
Faucher opened Sucrerie de la Montagne in 1978. It now attracts 40,000 visitors every season, including busloads of international tourists. Faucher’s rustic cabins — some of which date back two centuries — usually host raucous gatherings of up to 600 people, with live music and all the merry gluttony that Québec’s maple syrup harvest brings: tourtière, maple-glazed smoked ham, fresh country loaves, and fluffy pancakes. But last spring it was all abruptly cancelled, with no reopening in sight.
“What’s going to happen? How are we going to manage?” Faucher wondered. “And then I got back up and I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to face the facts. Now, the only thing we have is making maple syrup.'”
After sending his employees home for the season and donating extra food to a Montréal food bank, Faucher worked with his son Stéfan and his family to bring in the harvest, as Québec maple farmers have been doing for decades.
As the weather warmed, they drilled holes in the tree trunks and tapped them with a lattice of interconnected tubes through which the sap is drawn by vacuum pump to a tank at the sugar shack. Then, the sap is boiled down over a wood fire at 104 ºC for four hours until it becomes a rich and smooth syrup.
As the Fauchers worked hard to haul in the crop — work normally performed by their employees — they found a silver lining.
“My granddaughter said to me, ‘You know, Granddad, usually at sugar time you say hi to us and you leave right away. This year, we’re always together.’” Faucher realized she was right and decided then to make the most of the circumstances by spending more time with his family, working together, and learning about each other.
The Fauchers managed to survive the year. They sold maple syrup, taffy, and sugar pies to grocery and convenience stores, as well as some takeout meals to customers that drove out to the sugar shack. In the summer, they came up with a whole new menu and added a terrasse. At Christmas, they sold some meal boxes. But despite their efforts, they only made a fraction of what they would have in a typical year.
“We’ve been working with 10 per cent of our standard revenue all year, so it’s been really hard to make ends meet,” Faucher said. “It’s going to cost us a lot of money to get out of this, but we’re not going to break; we’re not going to stop working.”
An innovative alliance
The 2020 season was just as tough for Stéphanie Laurin, owner of Chalet des Érables in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines.
She’d never felt more fear than she did on March 13, the day the lockdown went into effect. ”We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do? The fridge is full of food and we’re going to lose everything,’” she recalls. “We were just paralyzed.”
Chalet des Érables would regularly receive 80,000 visitors in the spring, enticing families with its replica steam train and play park built by Laurin’s father and grandfather, who opened the sugar shack 75 years ago. But in 2020, no one came.
Laurin bought sewing machines, and her team made masks during the height of the first wave, but it didn’t do much to cover her $60,000 monthly overhead. If she couldn’t think of something, she worried that her family business would go bankrupt.
The thought of losing her business evokes powerful feelings in Laurin. She grew up at the sugar shack and inherited the business from her parents and her grandparents before them, and she plans to pass it on to her own kids. With their support, she’s holding on. ”Now I know that my children will help us and put their mains à la pâte,” she says proudly. Without her deep connection to this place, she thinks she likely would have given up.
During the summer, Laurin called other sugar shacks and learned that they were all facing the same challenges. According to a study by the Association des Salles de réception et Érablières commerciales du Québec (ASEQC) released in December, three out of four of Québec’s 200 or so tourist-oriented sugar shacks were at risk of closure, had pandemic restrictions been extended into 2021. And 40 of these had already shut down.
“I’m pretty sure Italy or France would never say, ‘It’s okay. We can close all the vineyards,’” she says. “That’s not possible. It’s their identity! Here, we have sugar shacks.” As far as Laurin is concerned, Québec as we know it wouldn’t exist without the sugar shacks.
Working with a marketing agency in Montréal, Laurin came up with a plan: she created a website that lets you order meal boxes from sugar shacks and have them delivered to nearby grocery stores. Seventy cabanes signed up.
“It’s our plan F, I think, or maybe W, but we’re very happy because Ma Cabane à la Maison is helping businesses survive,” she said. “We sell a lot of our own boxes, but we’re helping the other sugar shacks too.”
Faucher at Sucrerie de la Montagne got choked up when asked about Laurin’s efforts to save sugar shacks like his. “I’m really full of feelings for her,” he said. “She’s really strong.”
So far, the delivery program has sold over 71,000 boxes, and Faucher estimates he’ll sell 5,000 this season, probably more.
Nearly a year to the day since the pandemic forced sugar shacks to close, Laurin was out in the woods with her family, drill in hand, tapping trees for the very first time. She’d always been too busy when she was working in the dining room, which was now filled with boxes instead of merry customers.
“I know it’s sad that we’re closed. But what’s happening with all the sugar shacks working together has never happened before,” she said. “So it’s not sad. It’s amazing, in fact, to see so many of us in this industry working together.”
Joel Balsam is a Montréal-based freelance journalist and travel guidebook author. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the Guardian, TIME, CBC, Lonely Planet, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with his latest work @joelbalsam.
Stephanie Foden is a Montréal-based freelance photographer who has shot stories for National Geographic, the New York Times, the Guardian, ESPN, and more. Follow her on Instagram to keep up with her latest work @stephaniefoden.