BY Jeff Tribe
Five generations of Jakemans spent a century and a half growing, building and adapting passion centred around the seasonal sweetness of pure Ontario maple syrup into a sustainable family business.
The effort arguably reached a milestone just over a year ago with the completion of a state-of-the-art $3,000,000 processing facility, a significant investment designed to allow growth into an existing sixth generation.
Then along came COVID-19, effectively shutting off the tap on Jakeman’s maple syrup products flowing to airport duty free and other souvenir shops and restaurants. “We opened the building March first and three weeks later, all our markets shut down,” recalled Chad Jakeman.
Syrup was flowing in, but there were no sales going out.
“It was a lot of stress, a lot of sleepless nights,” continued Jakeman, who had found building construction and completion enough of a challenge. “We were pretty well chewed up and spit out at that point – and then they shut down all our retail streams. You’ve just got to figure it out somehow.”
Challenge is nothing new for a family which first learned the maple syrup-making craft from First Nations people. George and Betsy-Anne Jakeman began production in 1876 after emigrating to Oxford County from Oxfordshire, England. Their son Ernest continued the business, as did Chad’s grandparents George and Ann, and he and brother Devin’s parents Bob and Mary. ‘For the longest’ time it was based simply on maple syrup production, farm market and roadside sales.
But looking to expand within the industry, Bob began selling production equipment, and during the ’70s and ’80s, set up evaporators in “half the woodlots in Ontario,” says Chad. But that market dried up due to a lack of syrup market, so the resourceful Bob developed a pure filtration system whereby product bought from other producers could be blended.
“And still stay consistent,” said Chad. “We still use that same system, although on a larger scale.” Both he and Devin were well versed in the syrup-making arts by the time they were teenagers, via a familiar rural apprenticeship program. Laughing, Chad recalls how much fun syrup-making was for the first few days.
“And then you’d realize it’d be another month,” he smiled. “Come home from school, they’d be waiting to put us in the woods,” added Chad, who experienced his fair share of cutting and splitting wood. “Luckily now, we have natural gas.” By the time the brothers were ready to join the business in a permanent role, what was originally 600 acres had been transformed into 60 by family succession.
“Everyone kind of took a chunk,” said Chad, whose uncle Bruce still produces syrup next door. “We were left with the business.”
COVID is unprecedented, but crisis is nothing new. Chad cited 2008 when a veritable avalanche of snow in Quebec prevented producers there from harvesting, leading to buying up a significant percentage of the Ontario crop.
“We had no supply for our own markets,” said Chad, recalling desperately driving around in a pickup truck seeking farmers selling syrup at the end of their laneway. “It comes full circle – here we are in another crisis year: 2020.”
What also came full circle was how challenge transformed the family business. Many of the farmers who filled the gap during the 2008 shortage have become among the 200-plus Ontario-based producers Jakeman’s sources syrup from, for a growing business. It’s a symbiotic relationship, says Chad, his family relying on their production, the producers who do not have their own scalable business model, gaining access to guaranteed sales.
“They rely on us to grow the market,” said Chad. “Economics works that way,” he added. “You’ve got to have demand, or the product won’t be made.
The relationship has allowed both partners to expand operations. “Some come with two or three drums in a pickup truck, and then there’s guys who come with a whole 53-foot truckload.”
Jakeman’s employs its own quality assurance inspector, and each producer must be inspected and approved before being accepted. Many are also federally inspected says Chad, with syrup regularly sent for laboratory testing to ensure safety and quality. All syrup is also pasteurized to 217 degrees Fahrenheit. “And then we filter it and do a blend.”
Syrup tends to darken over a season, with for example, old-timers talking in hushed tones about some particularly light product coming off a sandy knoll on the first run, or denigrating the darkness of a late-season draw as fit only for sugar. Jakeman’s do produce light or dark syrup for special occasions says Chad, but a blended amber grade is not only the most popular but also, in his opinion, offers the most balanced flavour. “It’s a realistic approach,” he says.
Jakeman’s maple syrup and maple products are available in every airport in Canada, save ironically Pearson, and at many tourist areas including Niagara Falls, Vancouver and Banff.
“It’s like a post card from Canada,” says Chad.
Jakeman’s products are also shipped internationally to China, Australia, South Africa, more recently into Viet Nam, as well as long-term into various health food stores in the United Kingdom, and Ireland, where it is the number one maple syrup. “And has been for 10 years.” Jakeman’s is also making inroads into United States grocery chains.
The new production facility was five or six years in the making, says Chad. “It’s been a long struggle to get it,” with completion coinciding with COVID’s unwelcome arrival and elimination of their marketplace, leaving the family “beside themselves.”
“We had to pivot in a hurry.”
Since Chad and Devin’s arrival in the business, gaining grocery store market share had been a goal, and Jakeman’s had made it into Farm Boy. Apart from the size of the potential market, there are advantages versus souvenir sales, says Chad, which have less emphasis on quality, more on price, compared to grocery or food services products.
“You want to buy something for your home, you are going to eat it and you want it to be good.”
As they looked around last March, desperate to see who was open, who they might sell to, they decided to pursue the possibility of expanding that bridgehead, an effort assisted by the new production facility’s capacity to achieve BRC (British Retail Consortium) food standards. A friend at Tremblett’s Independent in Ingersoll connected Chad with a district manager, who then put him in contact with a category director for Loblaw’s, which it turned out, was open to sourcing additional maple syrup.
“It was like toilet paper,” says Chad. “It was flying off the shelf.”
Consumers may see Jakeman’s maple products in branded, stand-alone shelving produced by Holbrook-area craftsman Mike Dennis. One step up is “planogramming”, whereby existing retail shelf space is available, but suppliers have to make individual deliveries.
“He (the category director) said ‘I’ll do you one better, I’ll put you in the warehouse,’” said Chad, thrilled to hear he’d be shipping to just one, rather than multiple, locations. It has meant learning new data merge software programming, however skids of products go comparatively-conveniently to Pickering. “For a person like me, that’s like winning the lottery.”
From there, branded Jakeman’s maple syrup products are now available in a wide variety of grocery stores across Canada. “The more you are seen, the easier marketing gets,” said Chad. “And I think we’re seen as a market leader, now.”
Concurrently, Jakeman’s has connected with 80 Sunset Grills and are also diversifying into the food services industry with Sysco and Gordon’s Food Service. New maple sugar creation, granulation, mixing and packaging equipment allows Jakeman’s to convert 40,000 pounds of syrup into granulated sugar.
“We are going to run that into sugar packets,” says Chad, who has been a lifelong test subject for the benefits of combining the richness of coffee with the richness of maple sugar. “They go really well together.”
The latter statement is one which could apply to maple syrup and the Jakeman family, through 140-plus years of hard work, evolution, business savvy, challenge and crisis. Nationally, a First Nations practice of boiling down 40 gallons of sap into one of maple syrup has created a $500-million industry. Jakeman’s processes around a million pounds annually says Chad, which pales in comparison to some massive Quebec counterparts.
“We’re big around here, but a little business dealing with big business in the grand scheme of things.”
Devin and spouse Danielle have two children, as do Chad and wife Fernanda, with a third on the way. Providing them an opportunity to continue a family tradition will require continued evolution within a dynamic marketplace and against unforeseen future challenges. But Chad appreciates the fact it will be based on tradition stretching back through five previous generations. Trees George and Betsy-Anne first tapped 150 or so years ago are still producing sap, Chad says. This is enviable sustainability compared to, for example, cane sugar, which may require clear-cutting rainforest and ultimately produce effluent and waste.
“With ours, the by-product is water,” he said, pointing to a reverse osmosis process which removes a lot of water from sap, finished into syrup with natural gas-fired boiling. “It’s a really environmentally-sound plan.”
Admittedly, Jakeman's business plan for their own sustainability was not a major financial outlay in advance of a global pandemic closing existing markets. “It happened at the worst time, but we did it,” said Chad, admitting that while it was an incredibly stressful transition, COVID-19 may actually have contributed to their entry into the Loblaw’s group. “It did open a door.”
Ten years ago when he joined Jakeman’s, the family business employed 10, including him, Devin, Bob and Mary. Last year the company issued 29 T4’s including 25 for full-time employees.
“It’s come a long way,” concluded Chad, pleased to see 2020 behind them, and this year’s run beginning with considerably more promise. “The future is looking bright now.” ◊