Business growth in Eskasoni not slowed by pandemic
At least 8 businesses have opened in First Nation community throughout the pandemic, including Wilders Diner
This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.
Sheldon Francis saw an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic to bring takeout meals to his community at a time when many people were struggling.
In February, Francis and his wife, Jane, launched Wilders Diner on a small piece of land across from their home on Blueberry Root Lane, joining at least eight new ventures to open in Eskasoni, N.S., during the pandemic.
"People were all stressed out with this pandemic," said Francis. "We were locked down, so I told my wife we should open up right away so I can comfort the people with the comfort food."
At a time when even the most established businesses faced uncertain futures, Eskasoni continued to grow, said the CEO of the band's business operations.
"During COVID actually, ironically, we opened up three band-owned businesses and two corporate stores," said Steve Parsons.
He said among the new businesses in the community are a band-owned TV and internet provider, two takeouts, a restaurant, a local transit service and a Tim Hortons. An Eskasoni-based branch of the NSLC, offering cannabis sales, is expected to open in late summer.
There are also plans to expand a nearby strip mall by four retail spaces, bringing the total number of units to eight.
At Wilders Diner, business has been so good that plans are already underway to expand the takeout space with an eat-in dining section.
Named after the couple's two-year-old grandson, the diner currently offers homemade meals that must be picked up and prepaid through online ordering.
Recipes for dishes like sweet and sour meatballs, corned beef and cabbage, and meat pies made with bannock crusts were passed on by Francis's relatives, including his mother and grandmother, who helped raise 18 children.
"I was raised at my grandma's when I was 10 years old," Francis said. "That's where I learned how to cook. She can cook from scratch or whatever's in the fridge. Sometimes it would be only turnips, carrots and macaroni in the cupboard, but she can make a soup."
The diner plans to add traditional Mi'kmaw dishes like eel stew and hashaway, a dish made using potatoes and water, to its menu.
Francis said larger meal portions and the nostalgia of having something made from scratch has customers flocking to Wilders Diner from places like Membertou, East Bay, We'koqma'q and Potlotek to sample the cooking.
To keep up with demand, the diner recently added two employees.
Parsons said in the last three years, 120 to 200 jobs have been created in Eskasoni, a community of 4,700 people.
That follows a report conducted 15 years ago that showed 85 per cent of Eskasoni's disposable income was leaving the community.
Parsons, who has worked in Eskasoni for 22 years, said a lot of work has gone into supporting the creation of local companies.
"When our corporate office was established by the chief and council of the day, the mandate was to aspire to create new businesses," he said.