Food Markets in Muskoka
Article by Meghan Taylor / Photography by Andy Zeltkalns
|In a world of immediacy, ordering a meal, a gift or groceries is easy as the click of a button. Maybe its finally emerging from the impacts of the pandemic or maybe its returning to our roots but small, local grocery stores and markets throughout Muskoka are flourishing.
The presence of butcher shops, farmer’s markets and general stores has been a part of the Muskoka experience since settlement. Morley Stephen’s father, Arnold, first opened Stephen’s Meat and Grocery Store near the bridge in Port Carling in 1927. When the land the shop was located on was expropriated, Morley took the meat cutting equipment back to his small home garage and reopened there. Since then, Stephen’s Butcher Shop has been providing high quality products to its customers.
In 1995, after graduating from university, Morley’s son Richard returned home and joined the family business. Now, Richard and his wife Jennifer operate the shop full-time, with the help of family and their dedicated staff members. Offering a wide variety of products, including local produce, baking and a large selection of condiments, sauces and marinades, Stephen’s Butcher Shop strives to deliver everything needed for an impeccable meal.
Fresh food markets can differentiate from larger corporate chains by offering quality items, local items and in-demand items. Communities want to support local; whether that’s local producers, local farmers or local businesses.
The Farm Store, located in Bracebridge, connects the local community with clean, healthy food from trusted local farmers and producers. Opened in 2022, co-owners Alexandra Roth and Chris Finlay have focussed their operation on locally produced and farmed foods from the Simcoe-Muskoka region.
“We work directly with a lot of small producers and farmers to give them a retail outlet that caters to their capabilities,” shares Roth. “A lot of producers can’t work within the constrictions of large grocery chains. We have this open line of communication with them. It makes it easier for them to get their product to market.”
Roth is familiar with the process and the barriers to entry of larger grocery chains. She supports smaller vendors by sharing that knowledge. At the same time, The Farm Store gives customers a single outlet to find many local products, rather than visiting each individual producer directly.
“We’d like to be known as the destination for hyper local food products in Muskoka,” says Roth. “We also have Muskoka’s only bottle shop where we provide fine wines from around the world that cannot be bought in the LCBO. We offer wine pairings with our local food assortment.”
Working in the farming industry herself for the past seven years, Roth has worked directly with many producers as well as almost every other grocery outlet in the region. She directs customers to other businesses when they’re looking for items she doesn’t carry.
“We’re better as a whole and we support our local business community as much as possible,” says Roth. “The more local businesses that thrive, the more our economy grows and that’s what we want.”
More than ever, customers have an awareness and an appetite for understanding, and seeking information about, where their food is coming from. They’re knowledgeable about food production and preparation and want to ensure the quality of what they’re consuming.
McMaster’s Muskoka Fine Foods in Bracebridge has built their reputation on having prime cuts of meat, aged in-house, along with seafood, fully prepared meals, gourmet grocery items and produce. Their aging process is a well-kept secret but the key is that there’s a process in place to deliver the optimal product.
“You’re getting a quality product that’s naturally raised,” says Melanie Carter, owner of McMaster’s and red seal chef. “It’s chicken that tastes like chicken, kind of like when you grow your own tomatoes and they actually taste like tomatoes.”
Since 2008 McMaster’s has aimed to develop relationships with their customers by providing personalized service, whether that’s a friendly smile or tips and tricks for creating the best meal.
“The care and attention we provide to our customers is really important as well as the quality of goods,” says Carter. “I’m a red seal chef, before I owned this business, so I try to make sure everything tastes really good.”
Many Muskokans want to do more than just build their own knowledge and awareness about what they’re eating. Developing conscious consumer habits and greater environmental awareness leads to a greater drive to support local producers.
Since 2014, Muskoka North Good Food Co-op in Huntsville is a one-stop shop, with everything from a local food grocery market to catering to cooking classes and more. Although the Co-op is membership driven, anyone can shop, visit and participate in their offerings. Supporting the local community for the Co-op goes beyond providing food and aims to grow the local food system and further enhance community development.
Born and raised on a produce farm, Michelle Shabatura brings her knowledge and experience with growing pesticide-free produce into her business, The Farmer’s Daughter. Opened in Huntsville in 2004, The Farmer’s Daughter offers fresh produce, raw ingredients and ready-made components for any of your needs.
Shopping is much more about the total experience, not just the necessity of stocking the fridge and filling the pantry. Locality and quality, along with other factors, impact customers decisions of where to purchase their goods.
Founded in 2004 by David Kitchen, Field of Greens in Port Carling is a fine grocery retailer, known for their fresh fish, seafood and meats, scratch made baked goods, prepared foods, quality produce and unique cheese and deli selections. Field of Greens can be a one-stop shop for one meal or for every meal.
Kitchen credits their success to more than their product curation, quality and convenience. He notes that he has an incredible team of long-term, loyal employees who provide superior customer service.
“Our customers love their shopping experience and we love them!” says Kitchen.
Equally as important as the quality of goods is the level of customer service and care provided by fresh food markets. Shopping in these environments is an experience. Having time to view and compare goods and ask for cooking tips is part of the appeal.
Chefs and co-owners Sean Sullivan and Bobby Landry, along with manager Terri Dean, opened Hiram St Market in downtown Bracebridge in 2022. Hiram St Market aims to curate a selection of pantry items that can’t be found at the traditional grocery store, sourcing items locally and from Europe. They also ensure that in-house products, like their sausages, are just spices; no gluten or fillers added.
“People love when they come in and want to try something different, that we have two chefs that are always happy to assist in giving directions,” shares Dean. “People come back more confident that they were able to execute the dish, and in turn, will be more apt to trying something else on their own.”
Sharing space with Big River Bakery, Hiram St Market offers sustainable fish and seafood, fresh meat, cheeses, grocery items and grab and go items from their restaurant, Sullys.
“Everyone should have at least one night a week where the thinking of ‘what’s for dinner’ is completely deleted from the mind,” shares Dean. “The pre-made items do just that. We love to indulge in the Sullys Chicken Pot Pies every Sunday night with a nice salad – the last thing we want to do is cook.”
Nowadays, shoppers expect quality products and experiences. Especially if they’re only shopping for a specific meal. Fresh food markets truly harken back to a level of service reminiscent of the early days of Muskoka. Building relationships, offering a meaningful experience and quality local goods is the essence of the niche grocery store.