The Hogan Family has seen more than its share of challenges but the common thread they’ve pulled from that tangled ball is one composed of resilience, optimism and love.
Spencer and Erica are a husband and wife team responsible for founding a major, local maple syrup production facility and for bringing three sweet daughters into the world.
It all started with loss, love and an adventure.
Bruce Balfour's legacy
When Bruce Balfour passed away at the age of 93 in 2016, he left each of his grandchildren $200 with some conditions.
"They couldn't save it, invest it or use it to pay bills," explained Erica Hogan, CFO and co-founder of Hogan's Homestead. "Nor could they donate it. They had to spend it on something they could do with their families."
Spencer Hogan, one of Balfour's grandchildren, received his money in the spring of 2017 and came up with a crazy idea after he and his wife, Erica, went for a tour of Gilbertson's Sugar Shack on St. Joseph Island.
He thought making maple syrup looked like a fun hobby for him and his family to do together and spent his $200 on equipment to tap the maple trees on their St. Joseph Island property and make syrup.
"He went to Kentvale and got some buckets. We started with five taps and by noon he was back at Kentvale and got another 20 buckets. We started on an evaporator that Spencer built from a steel drum and a fireplace kit. We boiled outside. We self-taught and fell in love with it."
"We started off with this as a hobby and just a reason to spend time together but, little did we know it was going to turn into this!"
Massive growth of business and friendships
It turns out Erica and Spencer Hogan have quite a gift for producing maple syrup. After the birth of their first daughter, Sophie, they outgrew operations at their homestead on St. Joseph Island and, when the Superior Maple facility on Theilman Road in Goulais River came available, they purchased it in August 2020.
They undertook what Erica called a crazy project to spend 10 months renovating and upgrading the facility during the first year of the pandemic before announcing a soft opening in December of that year.
'Crazy' and 'sweet' are two of Erica's favourite words and she tends to use them a lot.
"We have a team of 11 full-time people right now," Erica explained.
"I don't even like calling them staff," she said. "Without them, this would be nothing. The team is what keeps us going. They kind of drive our crazy ideas and we listen to theirs."
The Hogan team uses reverse osmosis to raise the sugar content of their sap before running it through the evaporator and reducing it to maple syrup.
The homestead is comprised of 11,000 acres of land, 336 acres of which has active taps. They made more than 184 barrels of maple syrup this spring. Each barrel holds 45 gallons or 600 pounds of syrup.
Their products are regularly inspected and graded by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure they are free of contaminates, pure and safe to consume.
"We hope to one day be a leader in technology in the industry," Erica said. "We want to help drive the industry (to develop and adapt to new technology) and make it more attractive to the younger generation."
To work toward that goal, Erica said the whole team is constantly learning and open to new ideas. They try different flavour combinations for additions and watch the industry for ideas and technological advancements.
"Never be the smartest person in the room - specifically the smartest person in the sugar bush," she advised. "We are excited to see what other producers are doing and, if we can learn and tweak our process, learn from our mistakes and from what they've done so well, I think we could be (an industry leader) one day."
She also said their corporate culture is family and team-oriented with a focus on work-life balance. She said that a happy team working well together helps everyone succeed.
"I want them to feel like they're not just here for a paycheque but that they're here to make a difference. This is a family for me and we are working on community and family wealth for our entire team and that's all we're trying to do."
Steve Phelps freely attests to the success of this philosophy. A good friend of the Hogans, Phelps eventually gave up his day job to come on board with them as the Hogan's Homestead Forestry Manager.
"I am very much invested in the business because it's here for my friends and their children. We're family. We're friends but we're very close," Phelps said.
When the Hogans took over operations at Superior Maple Products they didn't have a detailed map. It's a key tool that is vital to project planning and without it, they couldn't accurately take inventory of the sugar bush or plan for upgrades, expansions and maintenance.
"I came out in the evenings and collected all that data and compiled it into Google Earth and built the map that we now utilize," Phelps said. "I also compiled the statistical data of how long each of the main lines are, the 3/4 inch ones, and from there we can easily - when we're doing our projects like tapping, untapping, replacing of taps and brush cutting, we do projections of how long it's going to take to complete the projects. It helps us project how much it's going to cost to complete a project."
Winning awards, building a community profile
The Hogans and their team are also pretty good at both making maple syrup and at marketing.
Good enough to have won some pretty prestigious awards in the past few years.
- 2019 - the Hogans win Millworks' Bridges to Better Business Pitch Off.
- 2019 - the Hogans win the Young Entrepreneur Award from STRIVE
- 2020 - Erica Hogan wins the Striving Star Award from STRIVE.
- 2020 - Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce awards the Hogans with an Outstanding Business Achievement Award for Business of the Year 1-9 employees.
- 2021 - Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce awards the Hogans with an Outstanding Business Achievement Award for Community Investment Award 1-10 employees
Terrible loss galvanizes gratitude, will to give
In the midst of all this, the Hogans suffered a horrible loss. Their second daughter, Piper Marie, was born on Oct. 14 and less than 24 hours later she was gone.
The loss galvanized within them an iron will to appreciate what they had, and to share it with their family, team, neighbours and community.
They created the Piper Project, a foundation aimed at sending every newborn in Sault Area Hospital home with a new or gently loved children's book in hopes that it would inspire a love of reading. October is their annual book donation drive to collect enough books for the year.
"We are the youngest maple producers in Canada. We went from five taps to 30,000 in under three years. We're the third-largest producer in Algoma and we just became organic," Erica said.
They also like to get people out to the homestead as often as possible through special events and tours. It's a bit of a drive but it winds through beautiful forests and along the picturesque Goulais River in some areas.
"We always say there is sweetness at the end of the drive and it is definitely worth it."
Visitors to the homestead generally stay about an hour and a half but the Hogans are planning some activities that will bring more people out and get them to stay longer.
"We want to get people back to nature and to learn what we have here because our earth is beautiful and it's definitely worth the drive for a little slice of sweetness," she added. "We're trying to show people why we fell in love with this."
Their products are currently on offer in over 40 retailers in Algoma, at their gift shop in the Sault and at the Homestead. Erica says their syrup and other maple products are very popular.
"We're a producer and we hardly have syrup in our fridge half the time," she said. "We get the scraps if it doesn't fill a bottle. That's the syrup that's in our fridge," she said with a laugh.
As part of the Ontario Maple Producers Association, the Hogans opened their sugar shack to tours and to 20 local businesses for them to showcase their products and services to people visiting the homestead during the last weekend in September.
The businesses paid a fee for their tables and those fees went to the Hogan's Homestead school tour costs so they can keep school tours free, Erica said.
"We want you to come here and find peace in this property because, in the hardest time of not only growing our company but also us saying goodbye to our second-born daughter, Piper, all at the same time, this property and our dream and our team is what got us through and, if we can do that for someone else just to come here and just to look at the trees and say 'okay, I'm good for a minute and I've grounded myself,' then it's worth every moment and every sleepless night."
"My daughter, Sophie, (aged 4) calls a pink sky a Piper sky because every year on her birthday there's a pink sky and we know that she's there with us. We're trying to strive and drive for her and for our two girls that we get to hold at night."