100 Acre Wood

Mary and Kevin worked for years in the restaurant and hospitality business in Toronto before creating a beautiful wedding venue in Prince Edward County. Kevin grew up beside a ravine and spent his childhood outdoors before moving to the big city at 19. “I cooked my way up through the ranks,” he says with a grin, and he did very well. He met Mary, they saved their money and even invested in a restaurant, but then they began to yearn for somewhere more rural. Despite having a lot of family west of Toronto they focused on The County where Mary had spent time as a child and where they’d both explored as a couple. “We looked around for five years and luckily found this property before prices shot up.” They did look elsewhere, but, “The County kept calling us back,” Kevin recalls. “Every time we crossed the bridge it just felt right.” They bought their property in 2015 and spent the next two years fixing it up and building a business plan.

THE PLAN

100 Acre Wood is a romantic name for a beautiful spot and a very smart business idea. “A selfish idea really,” says Mary. “We’d been catering weddings, lugging our stuff all over Ontario, and I thought wouldn’t it be nice to do this at our own home?” She saw the hot market for weddings in The County, but also saw a space for the operation they had in mind. “We didn’t want to just come and compete with what was already here, that’s not cool, especially in a small community,” she says. They went for a different model, for all-inclusive weddings. “There’s a lot of venues that offer a beautiful blank slate where couples can bring in a caterer, work with rental companies, find staff to work the event. Our idea was to take away all that work from the couple. We take care of all that and they can concentrate on fun stuff and themselves.”

Kevin carries on. “It’s a personal experience, too. Mary doesn’t just work here, she owns the place and is a great wedding planner. Every wedding is custom and we limit how many we do each year. We can focus on each one and build up strong relationships. I’ve catered weddings in the past and sometimes done five in a weekend! This is very different. We curate something individual every time and make it laid back for the couple who can just handle things like seating, the DJ, the photographer.”

They have everything you need, but there’s a lot of room for customizing, and Mary works with couples to create their own style. “We work with the amazing florists and flower growers in The County to come up with something unique,” she says. There is Coriander Girl, Begonia Moon and Sas at Flora Lora. Sas grows her own and does beautiful installations, bouquets, boutenieres and arches but she’ll also bring us buckets of wildflowers so couples can make their own table arrangements and save some money. We help with that. I say whatever they can dream they can do, and if they want to be in charge of some stuff they can be. But it’s not necessary.”

Couples have access to the space from Thursday on and, depending on their personalities, some couples show up with decorations, family and friends and have a ball making the space their own while others turn up on the day just to get married and have a party in a beautiful location. They might have spent the run-up to their wedding golfing or hanging out at the beach. Many couples and guests stay in The County for a few days, having a vacation, too.

“We help find accommodation,” says Mary. “Being close to Picton we’re in a hub of great places, and we compiled a long list of recommendations. basically everything in a 20 km radius that we know and trust, whether they want rustic cottages for 30 people or nice hotel rooms for parents.” Getting groups to stay in one area makes carpooling and shuttling them in and out much easier, and because The County fills up fast, accommodation is one of the first things they tackle for a couple.

THE 100 ACRES

Mary and Kevin own 105 acres in total and use about five for the operation. The rest is worked by farmers and there are protected wetlands too. They chose the spots to focus on and threw all their energies into it starting with the chapel. Most ceremonies are outdoors, weather permitting, but there’s plenty of space for pews to move indoors when necessary. Dinner is served under the big tent on fine handmade harvest tables.

Tables are laid on Friday from their treasure chest of dishes, linens, cutlery and glassware, so the big day runs smoothly. “After dinner we light up the fire pit and people can gather there or hit up dessert station in the chapel and start dancing. There are different areas to stroll around, but it’s not so big you get lost or feel separated, and everything is as accessible as possible with ramps where needed.” There’s a delightful secluded area set up with hammocks and with entrances to trails that meander down to the back of the property. “There are natural canopies back there,” says Kevin. “Which make for beautiful lighting for photographs.” Everything onsite, no running from one place to another and plenty of room to get away from the crowd.

PERMITS, ZONES AND PROCESS

“We had to be rezoned and everyone was very helpful, but we did have to be patient,” says Mary wryly. “The planning department was supportive and for us the most important thing was making sure neighbours felt respected and knew they were being considered.” They wanted to be part of the community and they knew if their operation stuck out, didn’t suit the area or was obtrusive that wouldn’t be easy. “If someone came into this kind of space and planned on four events a week, big outdoor parties that went on into the night, that would not work here,” says Kevin. “You have to be aware of who’s around you, who was here first. Try to add to the community, not take away from what you liked about it in the first place.”

Before buying, they talked with the municipality about what they could and couldn’t do, and then they talked to neighbours and invited their feedback. “We didn’t just barge in,” says Mary. “But the municipality couldn’t give us a definitive answer about zoning, so it actually was a leap of faith. We went ahead anyway because we loved this place and wanted it.” There are always surprises, and in their case Mary ended up taking on two jobs to help pay for a parking lot that met requirements. “We rolled with the punches,” she says. “No hard feelings. They didn’t just demand things they supported us and guided us.” And it was all part of protecting their investment. “If you’re not in compliance you are vulnerable. If one person complains and you’ve not done everything right you can be shut down. We’re all good and know we go ahead and build our business.”

In fact while they were waiting for rezoning they did a trial wedding. “Our own!” laughs Mary. “Without rezoning we could do a friends and family event, so we had a big party in the garden and tested that the advice we were given was sound. It made us really excited to move forward but also happy to wait until everything was in place.”

Their first season was really only half a season. “The recent wet springs were a challenge,” Kevin groans. “Our trails were a mess and landscaping was delayed and we worked a lot in the rain.” The old barn was transformed by Kevin. “Mary showed me pictures of what she liked and I had to decide what was doable with what we had.” They got no special funding for the work. “We financed it ourselves with our investment and with a lot of waitressing and bartending,” says Mary. “We bootstrapped it!“

Two years in they are busy. Fully booked in 2019 and one date left in 2020, and they won’t even think about booking for 2021 until November. “We want to concentrate on this year, then take a breather before we get into that part again,” she says. “Even though I love that part, meeting new people, talking about their dreams for their wedding day.”

WITH A LITTLE HELP

They used a lot of local tradespeople like PEC Glass who did the splendid glasswork that gives the barn such style. “Tradespeople were great, showing up on weekends or at the end of their day,” says Kevin. “Buzzy from Fennells, Tim from Dainard Electrical and Chris from Veenstra. Those three businesses really helped us out andconnected us to smaller businesses we might not have found on our own.”They’re grateful to friends and family who were willing to pick up a hammer and help, and they got some good coverage from online platforms and magazines that helped reach couples who understand what they’re offering. All-inclusive weddings are a niche that appeals to certain people. Theirs sounds like having friends in the country with a gorgeous property and a beautiful barn who can plan, host and cater your wedding. What’s not to love?

THE FOOD

Kevin works with local farmers and focuses on fresh produce to design a wedding feast. ““We go with the couple’s tastes, of course, but I usually have carte balance to design a menu based on what’s in season, what’s in our garden and in other local gardens that particular week. It’s definitely quite vegetable focused and avoiding allergens which is easy with all the amazing fresh produce in The County. We just phone around, drive around, call on local farms and write our menu on what we find. The couple will have seen sample menus but they won’t generally see their own unique menu until a couple of days before the wedding. It’s great for me and the kitchen team to have that flexibility and their trust to be really creative.”

THE ROMANCE AND REALITY

“I can’t pretend it’s all romantic and fabulous and glossy,” says Mary. “It’s not like, oh I think we’ll build a pool in the backyard, now! The reality is running a new business is hard and we both have other full time jobs to make it work for now. But this is a dream for us, and we’re busy and I believe we’re about a year out from making this our full time work. If that means waiting tables or driving into Toronto to do jobs, we’re happy to do that.”

Mary knows full well that wedding days can be one of the best days of your life. “Playing a role in that is very special for us,” she says. “It’s a beautiful reward, after a year of working with a couple, to see it all come together. To see the joy. It’s good for our soul! We feel lucky to have this beautiful environment to share as our business. And we’re selfishly fostering something that gives us great satisfaction.”

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