Online platform helps keep Quebec's sugar shack tradition alive during pandemic

Sugar shack tradition

Stephanie Laurin slept next to a colossal, simmering pot every night over the last week, supervising the production cycle of pea soup at Chalet des Erables sugar shack, north of Montreal.

Laurin hasn't welcomed a single diner into her business since 2019 because of the pandemic, and yet she spent hours cooking and shipping hundreds of Easter packages across the region, filled with pea soup, meat pies, baked beans, omelettes, maple syrup and a recipe for maple taffy.

Chalet des Erables and more than 70 other sugar shacks across Quebec are taking advantage of an online platform created by their industry association to keep a beloved tradition alive and their businesses afloat during difficult times.

“We will soon reach more than 2,000,000 visits on our platform,” said Laurin, who is also the chair of the association that represents the province's sugar shacks, called Association des salles de reception et erablieres du Quebec.

“It’s unbelievable," she said in a recent interview, "considering the fact that we are eight million people in Quebec and that the website didn’t exist a few weeks ago.”

The website, called Ma Cabane a la Maison (my sugar shack at home), was launched Feb. 22 as a way to reinvent the sugar shack experience and prevent more businesses from closing. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of one-quarter of Quebec's 200 sugar shacks.

Instead of sitting shoulder to shoulder along a cafeteria-style table eating sticky, calorie-loaded meals, Quebecers can bring the experience home — and they ordered from the platform in droves ahead of the Easter weekend.

“Without Ma Cabane, less than 50 sugar shacks would still be standing,” Laurin said. “It was a plague, what was happening to the industry.”

The province’s centuries-old love affair with maple syrup usually generates more than $300 million in annual revenues for sugar shacks, according to Laurin's industry association. The industry suffered a drop in income of more than 90 per cent in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The industry association estimates that the online platform will produce $10 million in revenues for participating companies over a period of eight weeks. The platform offers Quebecers a choice between a variety of menus from 70 sugar shacks; the meals can be picked up at one of 196 participating Metro grocery stores.

Laurin said she was initially unsure of the project but was overwhelmed by how quickly people modified their sugar shack tradition.

“When people go to a sugar shack, it’s for the experience, to enjoy a day with your family, we see our uncles, aunts, grandchildren and we all share a meal,” Laurin said. “But Quebecers understood the message that if we want to reopen sugar shacks one day, we need to order online this year.”

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