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Pandemic flattens pancake sales, but maple syrup continues to flow at Gilbertson's (13 photos)

In the first of a three-part series on how the local maple syrup industry is adapting to the pandemic, freelance writer Violet Aubertin checks in on Gilbertson's Maple Products

Before the Covid-19 pandemic was declared and our lives temporarily changed I was tasked with writing short feature stories for Let's Eat, a regular series of articles based on local food. One of my original plans was initiated twice — covering a different aspect of maple syrup production from different points of view. 

But after each start they were sidelined due to the developing situation which made it difficult to cover the aspects I had planned to focus on.

Since 2020 has come with its share of hardships for many small businesses and I now have to rethink how I am covering my stories, I decided I would reach out to some of the local maple syrup producers to get a sense of how they fared in their production season and how the pandemic restrictions have affected that production.

Since 1936, the Gilbertson family has made pure maple syrup. In 1967, they added their seasonal pancake house restaurant with gift shop which is open for seven weeks during March and April. They are located at 3090 Huron Line, Jocelyn Twp, St. Joseph Island.

"After eight days of being open our restaurant and gift shop had to close its doors. A normal season is usually 42 days and during that time we see upwards of 14,000 visitors, including many seniors' groups and school children. We also suffered a tremendous hit as we purchase, and prep or prepare a great majority of our restaurant food before the season even begins. We also have a fair amount tied up in stock for the gift shop," said Kerry Gilbertson, co-manager of the Pancake House Restaurant and Gift Shop in an email.

"With the closure, there are approximately 10 full time positions and 21 part time positions lost with a good majority of them being students who look forward to getting work experience with us."

"Retail syrup sales are likely to take a hit with the loss of a great percentage of farm gate sales. It is difficult to say, at this point, what will happen with bulk syrup sales. We generally sell approximately 80 per cent of our annual crop in bulk sales," said Calvin Gilbertson, president of Gilbertson's Maple Products.

Production at Gilbertson's Maple Products is still pretty much as usual since they are considered a farming operation. There are no educational tours or visitors to the evaporator room. They are doing what is required by law regarding federal and provincial Covid-19 guidelines. Those doing maintenance work in the bush are able to practice good distancing and the camp generally houses three or four at any given time with limiting entries and maintaining required distances.

"We are not doing take-out in the restaurant. We are not really set up for it and our location is not ideal for a take-out restaurant. We have however, started selling our frozen partially-cooked, maple pork sausage and maple baked beans along with maple syrup and a variety of other food and gift items using an email or phone in ordering method. All orders must be pre-paid, and I am available Friday and Saturday here at The Pancake House for curb side, no contact pick-ups." [email protected] said Gilbertson.

"We also offer delivery within the area and mail orders. We have three locations in Sault Ste. Marie that carry our maple syrup: Rome's, Pino's and No Frills." she added.

Although the end result of the ice storm heading into 2020 could have been more tragic, the Gilbertson's were thankful they had the equipment and manpower to deal with cleanup and repair of downed trees, limbs and sap lines.  They did log a lot of hours in the bush making those repairs and are thankful it doesn't appear to have affected their annual crop.

The Gilbertsons say they apprecate the support and encouragement they have received, and those who have placed orders. They say they miss their annual visitors and hope that if everyone keeps following safety measures, they'll be back serving the community soon.

Check back in Let's Eat, for more on the local maple syrup industry.