The Current

This woman's restaurant burned down in the pandemic. Here's what her story shows us about resilience

Amber Jenkins's restaurant was staying afloat in the early months of the pandemic last year, until a fire destroyed the entire building. But with the support of her local community, Jenkins has bounced back.

Community support key to helping restaurant owner recover from fire: expert

Amber Jenkins's restaurant, the Bluefin in Souris, P.E.I., burned down in May. (Pat Martel/CBC, John Robertson/CBC)

Story transcript

Like many Canadians, P.E.I. restaurant owner Amber Jenkins had to draw on her resilience to face the first year of the pandemic — particularly last May, when her phone lit up with a message saying her restaurant was on fire.

"I drove very, very fast and I got to the town limits and [could see] the smoke and the fire," said Jenkins, 32, who owned the Bluefin, a restaurant in Souris, P.E.I.

"My phone rang so many times during that drive because people were trying to make sure that I wasn't inside the building," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Thinking about that outpouring of concern from her community "still gives me goosebumps," she said.

The Bluefin restaurant in Souris, P.E.I. was completely destroyed by fire last year. (John Robertson/CBC)

That night, Jenkins had been visiting family where she grew up in Little Pond, about a 15-minute drive from Souris. She had been limiting contact with family out of fear of spreading the virus, but this night had been an exception.

"We had a very tragic death in the family," said Jenkins.

"It was a difficult time for so much to happen because COVID eliminated the idea of hugging and physical contact."

When she reached the restaurant, she confronted another layer of grief as the fire "destroyed the entire building."

P.E.I.'s fire marshals office ruled the cause to be "undetermined'' due to structural damage.

But as the calls to make sure she was safe subsided, Jenkins's phone lit up with a different kind of support.

"All of a sudden the phone flooded with condolences of the business and really uplifting things, you know, 'It won't take long to get back on your feet,' 'We're going to miss it, but everyone's OK,'" she remembered. 

"All I really did feel was support and love and as much comfort as they could provide, given the circumstances."

'A silver-lining type of person'

Jenkins had seen that community support in action in the early months of the pandemic. 

The Bluefin originally opened in the 1970s, and gave Jenkins her very first paycheck when she worked there as a teenager. She moved to Fort McMurray, Alta. as an adult, but moved home to P.E.I. after that region's devastating wildfires in 2017. The restaurant happened to be up for sale at the time, so Jenkins bought it. In high season, she had 35 people on staff.

When the pandemic struck, P.E.I. health officials ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms, and pivot to offering take-out only. The order came on March 17 — Jenkins's birthday. 

After firefighters put out the initial blaze, it reignited the next day. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Unsure whether the Bluefin's seafood menu would suit takeaway tastes, she laid off her staff to run a smaller take-out service by herself. She hoped to protect her staff from catching the virus, but also to reduce costs so that the business would survive long enough to hire them back.

Over the next two months, islanders keen to support local business made enough orders to allow her to rehire some of her staff and keep the kitchen lights on.

Jenkins said she's "a silver-lining type of person," but she never expected the demand for takeout to get her through those weeks of uncertainty.

Resilience like 'nested Russian dolls': expert

The support Jenkins found in her community is a key part of her story, said Michael Ungar, an expert in resilience.

"She has a community that rallied around her and didn't ignore her, she had staff who were dependent on her," said Ungar, the Canada research chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. 

"Her perseverance meets an environment that says, 'Hey, you're worth something and you have something special to offer us, and we're going to help you to bring that out,'" he said. 

Michael Ungar is the Canada research chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. (Submitted by Michael Ungar)

Ungar's work looks at how people build resilience, a term he said is "too often used as just to mean individual grit or a personal mindset."

Resilience also includes the physical, social and economic supports "that allow you to be able to withstand really unusual stress in your life," he explained.

"We're sort of like nested Russian dolls — each part of our lives sort of dependent on the next level to succeed."

Ungar thinks Canadians have shown more resilience than might have been expected in the pandemic. But there needs to be longer-term thinking about what protective factors Canadians need.

"A positive belief in the future is a lot easier to sustain if I have a government that provides me, during a pandemic, with a check to allow me to cushion the impact of my unemployment," he said.

"It's also better if I have a neighbour checking in on me, or willing to do a Costco run to pick up a few groceries for me as well, or that I have an online community to stay connected to while I'm socially isolating for months on end."

Amber Jenkins and her fiancé Jordan Dennis, at their new restaurant Strait Goods. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Local support 'unbelievably humbling'

After the fire, Jenkins said there were days when the stress started to pile up on her, but ultimately she "didn't spend very much time in that negative head space."

"I was looking on the bright side of things for sure," she said, noting that nobody had been hurt in the fire, and even though the building was gone, it left a lot of good memories.

She took the summer to think about her next move, and in December, opened a new restaurant called Strait Goods, down the road in Fortune Bridge.

It's built around a takeout model that she hopes will help to ride out the rest of the pandemic, with the potential to expand once that's possible. 

"I learned a lot about myself for sure, how many people were in my corner, and to slow down a little bit," she said.

The road ahead is full of opportunity, despite COVID-19.- Amber Jenkins

"I also learned a great deal about the community that we come from. The support that the Bluefin had was unbelievably humbling, but the craziest thing was the way that people came out for us whenever we opened in Fortune," she said.

As well as rebuilding her business, Jenkins got engaged since the fire. She and her partner plan to marry this spring.

"The road ahead is full of opportunity. Despite COVID-19 and despite the fire, and I'm certain of that."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann, with additional gathering by Pat Martel.

This story is the part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read more of those stories below

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