Success Stories

Owner Rob Engman serving a beer

 Read Rob's Story

Robert Engman was a city boy, born and raised in Toronto. He spent most of his adult life in the big city and it was only fifteen years ago when he started spending time at a cottage in Gravenhurst. Like many others, he caught the bug and realized that Gravenhurst was where he wanted to be all year long.

As an entrepreneur, Rob has owned a number of businesses over the past twenty-six years.  He currently owns a television production company which had been in Toronto and recently relocated to Gravenhurst. Rob publishes Canada's beer magazine, Taps and owns and operates the Canadian Brewing Awards & Conference. After being in the beer publishing industry for ten years, Rob had learned a lot about Ontario craft beers and met a number of bright people from the industry. He realized it was destiny and he opened Sawdust City Brewing Company in Gravenhurst. 

"One of the prime motivators for us to close our Toronto office and move operations up here was our ability to get affordable fibre... It's a great opportunity for people who are in the tech sector, or who need that kind of connectivity to do business and have a lifestyle that's second to none" said Rob.

Rob enjoys his work, but he loves the quality of life that he can have in Gravenhurst. "I've done conference calls on my pontoon boat out on the lake and no one is any the wiser," Rob happily admits. Everyone knows about the wonderful opportunities to enjoy Gravenhurst in the summer months, but Rob feels that there is something for everyone in the winter as well. 

Rob encourages others to evaluate if Gravenhurst is the place for them and their business. With lower property costs it's much easier to afford to live and work in Gravenhurst than it is in the GTA. Technology has also enabled many people to work from wherever they choose, and he hopes that the beauty of Gravenhurst will attract others as well. 

"My view from my office is just a little bit better than everyone else's." – Rob Engman. 


Owner of Blooming Muskoka, Lana Austin surrounded by a large flower arrangement

Read Lana's Story

Lana Austin has been serving Gravenhurst for over a decade, first opening Blooming Muskoka in 2005. "Where the smells and the smiles are free." The flower shop is located in the heart of downtown Gravenhurst. Since its opening, Lana's store has become a staple for all flower and decoration related needs within the community.

Lana was born and raised in Huntsville, and is a Muskoka girl through-and-through. She is a passionate retail florist which shines through the detail in the work she does. Lana has been working in the floristry industry for over 35 years, and brings a wealth of experience and expertise to her business. She wanted to set up her store in an area where she could see a need for an all-season, all-occasion flower store in Muskoka, and found her place right here in Gravenhurst. She believes in small-town and small-business relationships, and thinks that being fully part of the community has led to her success. She loves the small town connection offered in Gravenhurst, and has enjoyed building her customer base by providing extraordinary customer service. Lana could not stress enough the importance of providing the best experience possible for her customers, and she expressed without any hesitation how important her customer's loyalty has been in her success.  Lana is very proud of the staff she has working with her such as Gravenhurst High School Graduate Chelsea and the integral part of her team Janis.

Chelsea started with Blooming Muskoka in 2011, as a co-op student before her graduation in 2012.  When she started with Lana she did not know much about the floral industry, however the mentorship and help she received while at Blooming Muskoka have created a passion within her.  Chelsea has recently received high honours with the Canadian Institute of Floral Design.  "My favourite flower is a peony and making arrangements are by far my favourite part," said Chelsea.   

When talking about what advice she would give to those looking to set up shop in Gravenhurst, she said, "retail can be tough, you can't get around that, but with quality products, dedication, passion, and customer-centric service the clients will come."  She also stressed the aspect of getting involved and becoming a part of the community that you serve, which allows you to get to know your customers even better.

Looking forward, Lana was nothing but positive as she prepares for the upcoming season in her store. You can see the great pride she takes in her work, as the décor and flowers reflect the current season and are switched out regularly to ensure the best quality selection for her patrons. "I'm looking forward to many more years of building new relationships and maintaining the same level of service for my ever loyal customers," she said happily, reflecting on how important the loyalty of her customer base is to her as well as her future in Gravenhurst.

If you haven't been to the store you need to stop in to visit the resident fur baby Lily.  Lily is the Blooming Muskoka's business cat and people come in just to visit her!  Visit Lana, Chelsea, Janice and Lily today for all your floral arrangement needs at Blooming Muskoka, located at 141 Muskoka Road South in Downtown Gravenhurst. 

Owner Michael Billinghurst standing in front of a vintage Muskoka Springs delivery truck

Read Michael's Story

Moving to Muskoka after a career in the meat business, Michael Billinghurst was looking for a new adventure. In the early 90's the water industry was in its infancy. Michael remembers walking by Browns Beverages as a kid and being mesmerized by the bottle filler in the window. This looked like a good place to start talking to people about the beverage business. To make a long story short Michael and the owners of Brown's got into the water business. With Brown's excellent distribution Muskoka Springs thrived.

Muskoka Dry had been a main stay of Browns Beverages for almost 100 years but was put out to pasture in the late 70's as Browns stopped bottling and became a distributor. Recognizing the history of the product Muskoka Springs relaunched the classic pale ale with its distinct taste and old thyme look.

Muskoka Springs carries on the tradition of Brown's staying in the centre of Gravenhurst but distributing in a much larger area. Bancroft on the east, South River to the north, west to Georgian Bay and south to Orillia. Private labelling and the distribution of Muskoka Dry encompasses all of southern Ontario as well.

Muskoka Springs has new things on the horizon with a new logo, new truck wraps, new labelling and new line of craft sodas. There is also a new website with an online store for purchasing soda and a new line of logoed clothing.

The business has been around for almost 150 years in Gravenhurst. "Each new owner is just a steward of the business," said Michael. The business will be around long after each new owner. "This place is full of memories and good place to work," he added.

How does a business succeed in Gravenhurst all these years? "Do it better than the next guy," is Michael's mantra for succeeding.

Feel like you need a refreshing drink? Find a Muskoka Springs beverage in grocery stores and restaurants across Muskoka and Parry Sound. Need private labelling? Contact Muskoka Springs at 705-687-8852

Judy and Robyn holding a basket of freshly baked bread outside their Downtown location

Read Judy and Robyn's Story

Judy Rebelein is a Muskoka girl born and raised. Growing up in Bala her parents owned a grocery store which gave her the opportunity to start working in the food services industry at an early age. Although she's always worked for her parents, she used to dream of working at Don's Bakery in Bala with her friends. When it was time to go to high school, Judy started coming to Gravenhurst. While she was attending high school, she met Peter, where they became good friends and eventually more. Lucky for Judy, Peter's family owned The Bakery in Gravenhurst.

Judy and Peter were married in 1972, and lived in Toronto for a few years where Peter was running his own bake shop at the time.

Judy attended the Ontario College of Education while in Toronto and received her teaching degree.  In 1975, Peter and Judy came home to Gravenhurst again to take over the family bakery business where they are both actively involved in the business to this day.  Their son Jay and daughter Robyn are the third generation involved in the business. "We are proud of our great staff," said Judy. "We are like a family and it shows to the customers."  The Bakery employs both seasonal and year round staff.

Robyn, like her mother, is proud of The Bakery.  From a young age Robyn has been at The Bakery, although she remembers looking forward to growing up and leaving. Robyn did get that opportunity and moved to Toronto to experience the big city. Despite the move, just like the generation before her, the small town charm and the sweet smell of The Bakery brought her back to Gravenhurst. "The Bakery is an inherent part of our family. I am the third generation and my nephew may be the fourth," said Robyn. When Robyn is not at The Bakery she is enjoying the beautiful Muskoka landscape with her furry family members and her classic cars.  Keep an eye out for her prized blue impala around town!

The Bakery has been a cornerstone in Gravenhurst since 1959, but it has not always been easy. Judy has lots of suggestions for businesses looking to move to the area.  "There is a lot of opportunity in this town, but it involves hard work. You need to be committed to your business 100% of the time. The summers are good and surviving the winters is possible as long as you start small and keep it close to your heart," said Judy. "Gravenhurst is full of beauty, and our numerous landmarks bring many tourists to the town."

Judy and Robyn are pleased with the support of the business community around them.  "We appreciate all of the organizations and events that work to make Gravenhurst better.  When these events happen we see more customers come through our doors.  We are excited to see new events occurring in the downtown core and hope to see more on the horizon!"

Sweet tooth getting the better of you?  Visit The Bakery today, located at 141 Brock Street!

Cheft Alian Irvin, owner of North Catering and the Oar Restaurant in Gravenhurst

View Alain's Story

Born in Scotland, Alain Irvine came to Gravenhurst in the spring of 2004, when he took on the job of executive professional chef with Taboo Resort. By 2007, Alain and his spouse Robbie had opened their own restaurant and are the proud owners of the Oar Restaurant in Downtown Gravenhurst, as well as North Catering. Gravenhurst had a special appeal for Alain as Robbie's family has owned a cottage in the area for more than 50 years.

Two years ago, they launched The Oar & Paddle in North's former location in the heart of Gravenhurst on Muskoka Road North. "There's been a real resurgence in Gravenhurst with people moving back, especially young families. We wanted to work toward the future and create a place where those young families would feel comfortable bringing the kids and where many of our former North customers would want to bring their grandchildren."

Both Alain and Robbie are active in the community partnering with and helping to lift up other businesses.  The Irvine's are proud of being a year-round employer. "We can only be successful if other area businesses are too."

They have also noticed, with great excitement, a rejuvenation in Muskoka, and particularly in Gravenhurst, with more and more people moving their families and businesses here to enjoy the perfect combination of lifestyle and opportunity.

We've needed to consistently diversify and reinvent ourselves to make sure we are delivering quality products while always looking for new ways to meet our customer evolving tastes.

I love to cook, so everything on the menu has 40 years of experience put into it. It's always the details that separate an average dining experience from a great one.

Alain's global experience spans three continents, having prepared cuisine for some of the most prestigious hotels and resorts throughout the world. Alain's culinary philosophy of 'pure, simple and unhurried' is a great fit for the new style of businesses and customers emerging in Downtown Gravenhurst.

Hungry in Downtown Gravenhurst? Visit The Oar Restaurant at 530 Muskoka Road North. 

Penny Varney stands amoung many peices of art and handcrafted items created by local artist in the Arts at the Albion cooperative gallery in Downtown Gravenhurst

View Penny's Story

Standing in the cooperative art gallery that was once the kitchen and dining room of the historic downtown Albion Hotel, Penny Varney is right at home behind the counter. As one of the 20 artists involved in the Arts at the Albion cooperative retail space, Penny is approaching her fortieth year as a business and property-owner in Downtown Gravenhurst.

Penny has spent most of her life in Muskoka, growing up at the family cottage on Sparrow Lake, and as a full-time resident of Gravenhurst for decades. "After finishing my schooling in Canada, I was a Registered Nurse working at a dispensary in London, England," says Penny, "that's where I met my husband Tony. He was a pharmacist at the Boots Pharmacy where I worked in Piccadilly Circus."

During a trip home to Gravenhurst with her new beau, Penny and Tony were strolling down Muskoka Road. "We were looking in the window of the Gravenhurst Pharmacy and saw some Boots products... Tony went in to chat, and our lives changed."

Tony and Penny eventually wound up purchasing shares in the store and moved to Gravenhurst from England permanently in 1975. "We came when the area was really booming. There was still some industry here and the Muskoka Centre was open which provided a lot of jobs." They raised children here and maintained their Downtown Gravenhurst 'Corner Drugstore' business until selling it in 2000.

"This is a great place for children when they're young! It still is," says Penny. "As a resident in the community, I always had the feeling that if I didn't know where my kids were, I knew that somebody else I knew would know. People care about each other. As kids get older it's tough for any small town to match the excitement of the big city, but Gravenhurst High School is amazing, with incredible teachers, and it's such a vital part of our town. Having the high school downtown helps to define the fact that people live here and this is the centre of our community."

Tony is still a pharmacist in Downtown Gravenhurst at Terry's Independent Grocer. Nursing aside, Penny took courses at Georgian College as her children grew and became a certified goldsmith. She recently retired from her own store Penny Varney Jewelry after a successful 15-year run as a studio gallery on Muskoka Road South and is now a Town Councillor.

Having done and seen so much as an entrepreneur in Downtown Gravenhurst, what's the business climate like today? "It seems that the bureaucracy for a small business starting out today is too much, all of the codes and regulations can make it hard to sell older buildings and really rejuvenate the area.  Although not all of the change has been negative.  Business during the winter months has increased dramatically over the years. So many more cottages are insulated and have plumbing so they can be used year round. Downtown businesses are more adaptable and coordinated to meet the needs of off-season consumers," said Penny.

Penny's favourite thing about doing business downtown is the people. "You really can discover how small the world is when you take time to have a genuine conversation with someone."

What else should people know about Downtown Gravenhurst? "If you really, really want something to happen, you can do it here."

Arts at the Albion is located in the historic Albion Hotel building at 100 Muskoka Road North, Downtown Gravenhurst, Ontario.

Brew Master Sam tasting beer from the barrel at the Sawdust City facility in Downtown Gravenhurst

View Sam's Story

Born and raised in Muskoka, Sam eventually moved abroad to pursue his thirst for knowledge and to learn the art of brewing. "I never thought I'd ever be back when I left," he said. After studying brewing in Germany and honing his skills at a number of craft breweries in Canada, Sam has now returned to Muskoka in style, as co-founder and brew master of Sawdust City Brewing Company in Downtown Gravenhurst.

Sam and his partners looked at a number of locations in the Gravenhurst area before they settled on Muskoka Road North for their new enterprise. The arrival of Sawdust City Brewing Company brought a new energy to a 20,000 square foot retail store in Downtown Gravenhurst that had been abandoned by a national chain.

Has the effort of re purposing an existing building downtown instead of building on the fringe been worth it? Brewing in Downtown Gravenhurst since 2014, Sawdust has already outgrown its four tank operation and began running 12 tanks by the fall of 2015 to meet the demand for Sam's specialty brews. "When we started we had a five-year plan. Now we've learned that we should've only gone with a 2-year plan, because we've already passed our projections for Year Five!"

"Locating downtown provided some unique advantages," said Sam. "Craft brewing is an interesting mix of retail, merchandising, and industrial production all under one roof. We could have set up in some industrial park, but the high traffic and high visibility of Downtown Gravenhurst brings a lot of walk up traffic. People are surprised to see a brewery here."

Sam pointed out that the exposure of Muskoka Road has certainly helped the retail aspect of the business. "We didn't expect our 'tasting' bar concept to become such a success as a great place to hang out, play games, and listen to live music - it's like a neighbourhood pub!"

Having lived in a number of communities throughout his career, Sam recognizes that the Downtown Gravenhurst 'experience' has changed since his youth, "it seemed that everything used to be in the downtown, now the big box stores have drained some of that life away. Now it's hard not to notice the number of next-generation businesses growing in Downtown Gravenhurst."

Sawdust City Brewing Company has been a large part of the recent growth in Downtown Gravenhurst, adding to the social scene, bringing unique products to the market, and creating jobs for dozens of people. A great success story in its first year of operation, Sawdust City is one of the best examples in our town that good things are brewing in Downtown Gravenhurst.

Sawdust City Brewing Company is located at 397 Muskoka Road North, Downtown Gravenhurst, Ontario.

Owner Baya stands smiling outside her Downtown location

View Baya's Story 

Baya's first glimpse of Gravenhurst came when she was a guest at the Muskoka Sands Resort while visiting Canada from her native Hungary. "It was so beautiful and majestic compared to where I grew up in Hungary, I saw Gravenhurst as a real gem."  That's really saying something, coming from the owner of Gem & Dia Jewellers in Downtown Gravenhurst.

Eventually moving back to Canada, Baya and her husband Les were looking for a place to start a jewelry business. "We started in Orillia and drove north looking for a location for our store. When we saw this location on Muskoka Road South, it seemed perfect." Unknown to them, the building had once hosted a jewelry store for ten years earlier in its history.

"I will never forget our opening day in November 1996," Baya recalls. "We were completely new to the community, but were welcomed with such warmth and kindness from the residents and other business owners."

Baya and Les welcomed two sons into their Gravenhurst family and carried on with the day-to-day operations of their store. In 2003 they put their earnings back into purchasing their Downtown Gravenhurst store and invested in extensive renovations. Upgrades to the second floor apartment, windows, insulation, offices and retail interior space have been completed over the years. Restoration of the storefront façade, with support from the Downtown Gravenhurst Community Improvement Plan, happened in 2015-16.

Having been in business at the same location on Muskoka Road South for over 20 years, Baya has experienced many of the highs and lows that have faced Downtown merchants over the last two decades. What's been the biggest business challenge? "Vacant stores," she said. "Even one vacant store is too many. The downtown should be full of unique small businesses that can only be found in Gravenhurst. Maybe it's because I still look at things with a European perspective, but I still think that with our two lakes and all the surrounding attractions, this town could be a tourist paradise."

Despite the challenges, Baya has only one word to describe her career, "Pleasure!" What about all the hard work and long hours required to keep your business growing? "I sell jewelry, which is almost always purchased as a celebration of love, or beauty. My customers are always happy, and I'm so grateful to help be a part of their happiness," she said.

In 2016, Gem & Dia Jewellers celebrated its twentieth year at 135 Muskoka Road South in Downtown Gravenhurst, Ontario. 

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