Written by Janet Davies
Patricia McDermott and her husband, Bryan Rogers, opened the Agrarian Bistro and Speakeasy in Bloomfield in 2012 and the Agrarian Market in Picton four years later. The powerhouse young businesswoman and mother of two loves Prince Edward County, but back in 2009, when Bryan started Keint-He Winery with his father, Patricia was in no hurry to leave Toronto. “I wasn’t so sure the winery would make it,” she says with delightful candour. “I thought, I’ll just stay here for now.”
She was working in finance on Bay Street, but by the time she took maternity leave a year later, The County had worked its magic, and she joined Bryan full-time. Their daughter Helena was born, their son Hudson followed 18 months later, and Patricia decided to open a restaurant. “I wanted a gourmet grilled cheese bistro and a little cheese market, too,” she says. When asked how her previous career related to the idea, she says with more disarming honesty, “When I was lending, I would never have lent to a restaurant. It would be an automatic decline.” How times change. Fortune favours the brave, they say, and Patricia is not only brave – she has remarkably good timing.
She and Bryan were out walking, getting out of the house she had inadvertently flooded, and talking about moving. They dropped in to see their real estate agents, Iris and Brian Andrews on Main Street, Bloomfield. “We told them what we were thinking. I also said I liked the building we were sitting in and if it ever came on the market would they please call me,” says Patricia. To their surprise, the Andrews had just decided to sell their building and pulled out the listing on the spot. That’s how she acquired the building. But why gourmet grilled cheese? She doesn’t hesitate. “I had just had our son Hudson and cheese is pretty much all I ate during that pregnancy!”
They bought the building and opened the Agrarian Bistro and Cheese Market on the main level with seating for 12. The basement was leased to another business. “I had my little cheese market in one corner with just a couple of coolers,” she says. “We opened simply and from the first day we were full, and soon we knew we had to have more seating. The people renting the basement didn’t renew their lease, so we moved the market down there and put more seats upstairs. That was in 2013 and we just kept trucking along. By the end of the year we had to admit a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant was not really sustainable in The County, particularly in the dead of winter! So we started building the menu and the business.”
She remembers that first year. “Helena was not quite two and Hudson was about three months old. I remember rocking Hudson in his car seat with my foot while I was making a cappuccino for somebody. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to open at that time, but we did, and we made it work.”
To build the menu they hired chef Neil Dowson in November 2013. “He brought us to the next level,” she says. “We didn’t have a commercial kitchen but he did what he could, stepping over extension cords and using a toaster oven. In May 2014 I said enough is enough and put in our commercial kitchen. Neil ran with that and brought Agrarian Bistro to where it is today.” Neil left in January 2016 and now works with County Road Beer. Paul Tobias, most recently with the Drake Devonshire, joined Patricia and they’re moving right along. Paul is poised to take the Bistro even further. Hold on for 2017, it’s going to be adventurous, ethnic, and fun.
THE EXPANDED MARKET
We have said that Patricia has uncanny timing, and a quick trip to Picton proved serendipitous for the future of her little cheese market. In 2015 she was looking to expand the Market into a bigger local produce market, but hadn’t settled on a new space. “In October I drove into Picton just as someone was putting a For Lease sign on the fence at LCBO building site.” The new LCBO was not yet finished. She didn’t know if the rented space would be in the liquor store or the old house being relocated from Main Street. “I just knew I wanted to be associated with the LCBO,” she says. “For a business like mine, who wouldn’t?!”
The space on offer was in the red brick house that was saved from demolition and moved to a spot between the liquor store and the Millenium Trail. “A lot of people called that number after me, but I was the first,” says Patricia. “The owners had been thinking of renting to professional offices, but they really liked our plan.”
She signed the lease in December 2015 and opened April 22nd, only 4 months later. “We did a lot of structural renovation, and I am tremendously grateful to Mike Bell, our former chef, Rachel Morris who ran the market for us in Bloomfield, and Jeff Hounsell, who jumped in and took over the kitchen when we needed it most.” she says. “They painted, they moved stuff, they did everything. I tried painting but it turns out I’m not really good at it!” Mike has moved on, but Rachel is now manager of the beautiful new Agrarian Market. “She has a passion to succeed,” says Patricia. “Not only is she smart and responsible and a lovely person but she always has my back. That is a really wonderful thing to have.”
The team worked flat out through 2016. “Like chickens with our heads cut off,” she laughs. “We were running the bistro and establishing the new Agrarian Market and also rebranding and relaunching the Speakeasy, the bar in the basement, and doing the patio and figuring out how to bring it all together. There were a lot of moving parts.”
THE AGRARIAN MARKET CONCEPT
Patricia is very invested in promoting local produce. “When I moved here and got to know The County and we had our two children, I began to think ‘why am I driving around The County for two hours to buy food locally?’ It was lovely at first, it was an adventure going to the different farmers, and I still love doing it when I have the time. But I thought ‘why do I have to work this hard to buy local food? We should be able to pick up local produce easily, especially here in Prince Edward County.’ What she wanted was a market selling local food that is accessible and open year round. “Right now we don’t have fresh produce apart from Vicki’s greens and carrots,” she admits. “But that’s okay, too. Why should we buy strawberries in December?”
In their first year they are coming to grips with seasonality. “In January we want to offer more prepared meals, soups, things you can pick up and warm in the oven, and we are offering nutritional seminars, too,” she says. “We have a fulltime nutritionist here who will start seminars in January. I am interested in being able to feed our families locally. The fact is everybody is busy. Period. If I can take a step out of everybody’s day and make life a bit easier for them and support local farmers, too. Why not?
They’ve had growing pains. “A lot of our lessons were around the volume of people and what customers really want,” she says. “I’m not going to lie, this first summer was a hold-onto-your-hat situation. There has been a lot of changes, staff turnover, surprises. We thought let’s just get through this! We’ll regroup in January and plan next year. But our first year has been wildly successful. The LCBO has been tremendous at sending people over here. It’s such a great group of people over there, I mean they’re all local obviously, and they are very supportive. The wineries have been great, Sandbanks Vacations has been supportive, The County has been supportive.”
Staff at the Agrarian Market have been keeping a big notebook of ideas for things to launch in 2017. “Any feedback from customers and suppliers that we had through the summer we just jotted it down and said, okay, over the winter we’ll look over everything and see what we’ve got. What have we done already and what do we need to do.”
Agrarian Market has between 30 and 40 local suppliers. Apart from the cheese everything else is as local as they can get. “We can’t get much cheese and crackers locally, but 90% of what is in the market is local,” she says. “My wish list includes getting a butcher counter in here, and offering prepared salads to go and having picnic baskets for the beach and for wineries. I would LOVE to get a farmers market going on Sundays right here on the Millenium Trail. County council is onboard with that idea.” They started the planning process in April but had to park the idea until next year.
“Bryan and I are always talking about what we can do next. Like having an E-Bike pick up and drop off location here at the market, one at the Bloomfield location and one at Keint-He. We have a lot of land here for it. People could pick up a bike and get straight onto the trail that connects three communities. We’d like to get some fun snowmobile parking signs out there.”
ADVICE FOR MOVING TO THE COUNTY
Patricia has two main pieces of advice for people moving to The County or starting a new business here. “One, don’t be scared about trying something new. You can do that here, so don’t be scared. Two, be humble. I mean that. Don’t be scared, but don’t just assume either. Embrace the locals and local knowledge. Learn from them and take their advice for what it’s worth. Because it can be worth a lot.”
She is working harder now than she ever did in Toronto. “But I feel like the luckiest lady in the world. I get to do what I want to do, I get direct rewards.” Then she laughs. “I don’t mean financially! No business owner in the first year is financially rewarded! But just hearing good feedback from customers and seeing people come in and hearing them say Oh look at this, this is so great! The fact my husband is so supportive and proud of me and of all this is wonderful, too.”
Patricia gets serious about opportunities in Prince Edward County. “I am so invested in the food culture here. I really believe Prince Edward County should be a self-sustaining community. There is no reason why we should be having food brought into us. Our history of canning and preserving points to a huge opportunity, and teaming with local farmers for that would be great. There are hundreds of acres of land here that farmers don’t want to see go to wineries. I say, so don’t let it happen! I can say that because we have a winery, so it’s not that I am anti-winery. But there is a lot of land here, a lot of potential to diversify and grow more high value crops. We could be partnering with processors to have our own local food chain.”
“It has to be a long term goal,” she continues. “The target should not be tourists, the target should be growing a year-round economy and getting people to move to The County and getting people to stay here. We need people living here, young families who want to start something new. It will make it better for everybody, and new businesses don’t have to just serve local markets, they can serve Eastern Ontario and wider.”
Patricia has one more surprise. “I want to grow the Agrarian Market. I want to franchise it, starting with Belleville and then into Cobourg and Peterborough.” She explains that the actual brand of the Market is about supporting local food. “That’s not unique to The County. Every community should be self-sustaining. That way of living supports local economies and decreases our carbon footprint.” She takes a big breath. “So, yes, my goal is to franchise the Agrarian Market.”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.