The picturesque seaside community of Alma is known for many things in the Maritimes. Aside from being the southern gateway to Fundy National Park, the area is also renowned for its lobster and scallop fishing, as well as its delicious, home-baked goods.
It is in this community – the population of which is just over 200 people, according to the 2011 census – that Prince Edward Island natives Jeff and Peter Grandy, and their friend Ian Hillier, decided to put down some serious roots.
Approximately one year ago, the trio revealed their ambitious plan to convert the community’s former St. Stephen’s United Church into a microbrewery and coffee shop – Holy Whale Brewing and the Buddha Bear, respectively.
An unabiding love of the Alma area developed for the Grandy siblings when they were children.
“Our family often went to Alma when we were kids,” Jeff says. “It was something that we always looked forward to, so much so that when we began scouting possible locations to establish the business, it was near the top of the list.”
Naturally, setting up shop in a sparsely populated community typically means essential resources such as real estate are not quite as plentiful as they would be in larger communities.
“There were somewhat limited options to choose from in Alma in terms of existing structures, but the church struck us as having potential,” Jeff says, noting they purchased both the church as well as an adjacent property.
While the original construction date of the church is unknown, it was subsequently rebuilt in 1932 following a fire that decimated the original structure. The church was decommissioned in 2011. Bringing the building into the 21st century was no small task. Aside from needing to upgrade the building’s electrical facilities, they were also required to install plumbing throughout the property.
Also weighing on the founders’ minds, however, was the sanctity of the building they were moving into. Jeff says that while the community at large has been nothing but supportive of the business, he says they deliberately chose to incorporate as much of the building’s history into their operation.
“It was important for us to preserve as much of the church’s integrity as we could. We approached the project from a standpoint of total respect. We were moving into a space where people celebrated weddings as well as funerals, and were aware it might be a touchy subject for some, and understandably so. As such, we purposely budgeted more to allow us to incorporate as much as we could from the church, like the windows and the pews, without making it too tacky,” Jeff says, noting the restaurant’s cash station is the pulpit from the church.
While a steady stream of locals visited the building throughout the various stages of the renovations, Jeff laughs when asked if there is anything he would change with regards to how they went about renovating the former church.
“There was definitely a certain degree of romanticism at the outset of the renovations, and while I absolutely love what we have now without question, the renos certainly took a lot longer than we had initially anticipated. Would it have been faster to construct a building from scratch? Maybe, but it’s nothing that makes any sense to dwell upon, either.”
Although the trio had hoped to be open in time for the 2016 summer season, it wasn’t until November of last year that they finally threw open the doors to the Buddha Bear.
Of course it’s no secret that Alma is very much a seasonal community. While it is positively bustling throughout the late spring and early fall, summer is the community’s prime time season. Conversely, however, the number of people passing through the community dwindles significantly when the winter season sets in.
Although the prospect of having an off-season has surely driven away numerous entrepreneurs over the years, Jeff says he and his partners saw the downtime as an opportunity.
“The whole idea of having a busy retail side in the summer offset by a quieter time of year didn’t serve as a deterrent. We simply plan on using the quiet months to focus more on our manufacturing operations of coffee roasting and craft beer.”
The pairing of coffee and beer may strike some as being a bit of an odd couple, but Jeff shares he actually sees the two as complementary.
“There’s no question that enjoying a cup of coffee and enjoying a beer is two different mind sets, but the demographic, we believe, will be interested in what we have to offer [and] will be open to both,”he says.
Joking that he has been a longtime appreciator of beer, Jeff actually attended Olds College in Alberta to study the art of brewing. Given the meteoric rise in popularity of craft beer houses and products both in New Brunswick and nationally, Jeff is confident that his company’s Holy Whale Brewing will succeed in finding footing in the market.
“With respect to the proliferation of craft beer products, larger metropolitan centres have been immersed in this for much of the last decade. It has only been in the last few years that the movement has spread to smaller places, but we’re making up for lost time. There are so many great craft beer products in New Brunswick as is, and we are looking forward to throwing our hat in the ring,”Jeff says.
With the first batch of Holy Whale Brewing product expected to be available next month, Jeff notes the Buddha Bear is proudly supporting New Brunswick craft beer makers in the interim.
At the present time, the Buddha Bear is offering products from Fredericton micro-breweries Trailway, Grimross and Graystone on tap, as well as offerings from Edmundston’s Petit Sault and Moncton’s Acadie Broue.
“We are planning on launching Holy Whale with a core lineup of five beers, including an IPA, pale ale, and Belgian brew. We are also interested in dabbling in other styles down the road, some of which we hope to continually rotate through the lineup as well. It’s important for us to try new styles and keep things fresh for both ourselves and our customers.”
Eventually, Jeff hopes that the business will be able to employ their 10-hectolitre brewing system to not only appease those stopping by the Buddha Bear, but to eventually put Holy Whale product into liquor stores throughout the province.
In the meantime, Jeff says he and the staff are committed to ensuring everyone that visits their establishment is treated like family. A quick perusal of the business’ Facebook page speaks to the level of comfort the owners have been able to instil in their customers over the course of the last seven months that they have been open.
“The shop is quaint, but reminded us of what you’d see in a coffee shop in a larger city,” shares Shannon Rafferty-Terry, who visited the Buddha Bear with her husband and two children earlier this year. “The restoration work they completed is unique and really helps add to the décor and overall vibe of the place. I can see this becoming a regular stop for us when we are in the area.”
Alma Mayor Kirstin Shortt says the Buddha Bear’s arrival in the small community has been energizing to both residents and visitors.
“It has been energizing and encouraging to see new business come to the community,” she says. “Economic development is something we are always after, and with the Buddha Bear and Holy Whale, they bring something truly unique to the area, which stands to appeal to both an older and younger demographic. It’s not just a business, however. The owners have moved here and made their families a part of the community. In my opinion, this fits in well with the vision of what we want Alma to become as they are helping offer visitors a more-rounded picture of what the village has to offer.”
Jeff seems genuinely heartened at the reaction that the Buddha Bear has been able to cultivate thus far. He says the business has already exceeded their preliminary sales projections, and is looking forward to what the future has to bring them.
“The feedback we have received thus far has been good. We’re pleasantly humbled that things are going well. It all starts with respect and a commitment to give our patrons a good experience that will encourage them to return. That is going to be the key for the months and years ahead.”