WRITTEN BY JANET DAVIES
When Melanie Mena and Mark Wynen moved to The County in 2012, it was possible to sell a small flat in Vancouver to buy a large Victorian house here. It still is. Now they run two home-based businesses: The Black Licorice Tree B&B and Mena Dragonfly Studio. Here’s their story.
Melanie: We’re originally from Ontario. In Vancouver, Mark worked in the hospitality industry and I had a regular job in project management, but I lost my job in 2009. I had a hobby that I loved so I decided to try to turn it into a business. I’d been making pottery for about 10 years. I began selling at shows in B.C. and built up the business over a couple of years. Funny enough, my best sales were in 2011 when I told everyone I was moving! I was confident I could do business here because Toronto is a much bigger market than Vancouver, and known to appreciate art & handmade.
Mark: The One of a Kind Show had just started in Vancouver and Melanie had gotten into that Show, so she had her foot in the door, and when we moved she was accepted into the Toronto show. That’s where we first heard about Prince Edward County. When people asked us where we had our studio, we said we were kind of homeless and looking, and one person after another said, “Check out Prince Edward County!”
Melanie: We kept hearing about it, and we went to a restaurant where they were serving County wine and I thought, how come I hadn’t heard about this place while I was growing up here? But then you find out it’s just two hours away and rural and full of artists and surrounded by water. We didn’t have a long list of what we wanted, but Mark really wanted to be near water. I just wanted a bedroom with a door on it! And ideally enough space for a studio. And close to Toronto.
Mark: I hoped there would be something for me to do, too. I’d been in the hotel restaurant business pretty much all my life. In Vancouver I managed the building where we lived, a one-of-a-kind condo that offered shared artist workspaces. The amenities included a woodshop, metal shop, pottery studio, darkroom, a fume room, music rehearsal space, dance room. It was really nice. I heard there’s something like that starting in Picton, the PEC Studio Barn. Anyway, I had to manage a lot of people issues, insurance, schedules etc. And a lot of committees! Melanie ran the pottery studio and I was caretaker for the whole building. We figured we could make ourselves something in The County.
Mena Dragonfly Studio
Melanie: I love making functional pottery. Everything I make has a use. My most popular pieces are mugs and mini bowls, but I also make vases, pie plates, dishes, beer steins, basically tableware. I started by taking classes at a community centre, now I teach my own workshops. I was ecstatic to finally have a studio and kiln of my own, I’d always shared studio space before. Now it’s funny, my studio is the same size as our old apartment in Vancouver! A couple of years ago I invested some money in more wheels so I could start teaching. My workshops are laid back and fun with a maximum of four people, so everybody learns quickly and enjoys the class. I like it because I get to meet people I wouldn’t normally know, from new mums to retired people, and chefs and B&B owners in their slow times. We’ve started offering one-day workshops as a package at our own B&B. Joining the Arts Trail has also brought more people to our door. We’re on a major route to Sandbanks, which also helps. We get a lot of repeat business with the B&B, and people like to buy the same kind of dishes they’ve been eating off & test driving, each morning at breakfast.
Melanie: I sell at Zest in Picton, but up until this year I did not sell through other stores, just at shows and at home and the B&B. This year I won’t be at the One of a Kind show, so I’m working on selling through more stores and I’ve expanded my workshops. I also do an exclusive, creative project with Maison de Poivre each year, and our own home shop will be open five days a week starting mid-May.
I have my own online shop and I know there’s huge potential selling online, but honestly it’s a challenge to keep up with it! That’s a good problem, right? Instagram and social media really work. I only have about 1,300 followers but they’re very loyal, they come back, and they share with all their friends, “Ooh look what I got!” Or they serve dinner on my dishes, so then we get emails asking for the same things. People actually build collections of my work. A lot of people who visit from Toronto will pick up another piece for their collection.
WHAT WE LOVE ABOUT THE COUNTY
Mark: Coming from Vancouver, I really appreciate the space. And I was kayaking in Vancouver, but there’s a big difference between dragging a kayak out of a locker, strapping it on to a car, driving through a busy city and what I do here, which is pull it across the street and drop it in the water! The food scene – I love hosting and having people to dinner. Once again, after being in a small apartment it’s great to have people over, family at Christmas. We get involved in community stuff, it’s such a friendly community. Sure, we miss concerts and going to shows, but here you get together with friends and there’s music and even games nights.
Melanie: I think we’re actually more social here. It really surprised us how supportive and friendly everyone is. I guess in any city you don’t get to know people the way you do in a smaller place. Even before we moved in, we were here raking leaves and a woman went by on a bike and waved. We did one of those look behind us things, “Is she waving at us? Does she think we’re somebody else?” We waved back and then found out she’s a neighbour, just saying Hi. The first piece of mail we got was a welcome letter from the Mayor! Unexpected and so nice. People are very supportive when you’re starting new businesses here, it’s like they really want to support local.
Mark: With so many new people, everybody is reaching out trying to find their new circles. Artists, creatives, people working in food, young families, there’s a lot of similarities in people coming here right now.
Melanie: I guess we all have similar stories. You have to bring your own thing with you – there’s not many existing jobs waiting for you to walk into. You pretty much have to create something for yourself. A lot of people we know say they work harder now than ever before, but isn’t that the definition of an entrepreneur? You’re willing to work 80 hours a week for yourself to avoid working 40 hours for somebody else! Theoretically you can take any day off, but do you? Not really. I think being a business owner is more a lifestyle than a career. We work a lot, but at the same time it’s wonderful to be here, good to be in charge of our own destiny.
Mark: Anyway, I do find time to kayak, and I love cooking for the B&B, it’s a real pleasure for me. We’re both into music, Melanie plays the drums, I have keyboards all over the house and that’s so different to being in an apartment. The instruments could all come out of storage! I draw and paint, too.
Melanie: Mark created the Black Licorice Tree that gave our B&B its name, and we do a line of Black Licorice Tree pottery. He draws the trees. My trademark is my Dragonfly.
Mark: What else do I love about The County? Fishing! I was out this morning even in the lousy weather. You can catch pickerel, all sorts of pan fish, crappy and perch. In summer it’s bass and pike, and then there is Lake Ontario for brown trout and salmon. I keep the eating size fish and throw the big ones back to continue their job of procreating! I also do kayak tours these days for our B&B guests and sometimes kayak fishing trips if they’re up for it.
Buying Property in The County
Mark: After that first One of a Kind Show, I went on Quinte MLS and saw tons of different properties. Big gardens, small gardens, barns, boat launches, centre of town, middle of nowhere. In January 2012 we came out to look. I had about 25 places circled, anything of any interest. Well, we didn’t look for long. We stayed at a B&B in Picton, One Main Street, with a terrific couple, Carl and Helene. We told them our story and they advised us not to go too rural and remote where we might feel isolated. They could see we like having people around. This was about the seventh house we saw and we loved it as soon as we walked in the door. It’s a beautiful Victorian home, lots of original fixtures and already set up for a B&B. Believe it or not we had taken a course on how to run a B&B, but when they told us to expect to make a couple of thousand dollars the first year we ditched the idea. Carl and Helene set us straight on that, saying it’s not like that in The County. It’s busy. So when we saw this place it won us over.
Melanie: Something about it felt so warm, and there was a whole separate building for a studio and seven acres of land. It needed work, but we were totally up for that. We just made it modern and bright without interfering with its heritage. It’s still Victorian but you won’t see any doilies! We are lucky to be on West Lake road, which gets very busy in summer. It’s great for business and we’re set back enough that it doesn’t make us crazy. We’re lucky with the whole place. We knew to check out the well and septic and all that stuff, thanks to Carl and Helene. We are close to Isaiah Tubbs Resort which is great for visitors. All this land is wonderful for our dogs and our guests, we cut a long walking trail through it. Winter is a good, quiet time here. We get to hang out with friends, because in summer there’s no time for that!
Mark: We don’t miss the city at all. Okay, we miss take-out. But we get invited out to dinner a lot!
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.