The owners of The Biscuit Eater Café & Books in Mahone Bay have decided to sell their business and the historic building in which it’s located.
Jessika Hepburn, 39, who owns and operates the award-winning café and bookstore with her husband, Chris Graham, 38, say the reasons for selling are “multilevel.”
“The last year has been unbearable,” Hepburn said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner. “Between trying to be a human being, a parent, an employer, and making sure all of the bills get paid so we can grow has been impossible.”
Hepburn and Graham bought the café in 2016, the same year both of Graham’s parents died. Hepburn said the decision to buy the café was a way to help deal with their grief. They are the third owners of the café, which first opened in the early 2000s. The house in which the café is located was built in 1775 and is one of the oldest in Mahone Bay. In 2021, the business, which is named after a short story about segregation in the American South, won the restaurant of the year award from Taste of Nova Scotia.
Hepburn said their goal was to create a warm, inclusive community space where people, especially for those who don’t often feel part of the community, could celebrate and find support. Hepburn is of Black and Jewish descent and who grew up as a child of a single mother who was an immigrant to Canada.
But she said the last two years of the pandemic proved difficult for the business. Like other restaurants, Hepburn and Graham couldn’t find enough staff. Last year, the couple raised their wages to $21/hour and offered access to apartments upstairs in the building that houses the café. Still, they struggled to find enough workers. Hepburn said no one who lived locally applied for the jobs, and any executive chefs from elsewhere were asking for salaries they couldn’t afford.
Hepburn was one of three restaurant owners who spoke with Portia Clark at CBC’s Information Morning last September. At that time, Hepburn told Clarke she had worked 80 days without a day off because of low staffing. She also said they had to turn away customers because the staff they did have were overworked.
The café and bookstore is now open just three days a week, yet Hepburn said she and Graham are still putting in at least 40 hours over those three days.
“When we were open five days a week, we were working 60, 70 hours a week and it’s still not enough,” she said. “Right now, it’s the two of us. It makes no sense to recruit staff.”
While there’s a “huge amount of goodwill and love” for the business, Hepburn said she’s also been discouraged by watching other businesses on the South Shore close, including Tancook Sauerkraut and the Greek Quality Meats.
“They’re not being saved,” Hepburn said. “We’re all barely holding on.”
“In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic there was this real sense that communities would take care of each other, that we were going to step up and build a more equitable world or at least more equitable corners of our communities where we recognized people needed housing, they needed health care and basic sanitation. And then we rapidly realized, especially in the service industry, that people will not even wear a mask to protect you.”
Hepburn said they’ve also seen considerable change in communities in the South Shore, especially over the last couple of years as new residents move in. The cost of housing in the area, like elsewhere in the province, has increased considerably.
“We don’t recognize 90% of the people left on the South Shore,” she said. “One of the ideas behind buying the café in 2016 was to resist that idea of gentrification of our communities and turning them into towns that only operate seasonally.”
“It’s not that no one wants to work. It’s that there’s nowhere for them to live, there’s no health care, there’s no daycare.”
Hepburn said her family’s work-life balance has suffered, too. She and Graham have two teenaged children. And this year, Hepburn also had a heart attack scare. She said the doctor at the local emergency department told her it’s not a matter of if she has a heart attack, it’s when.
“I really need to see my kids grow up,” she said.
Hepburn said there’s been some interest in the business and the building. She said while she’d like someone to buy and operate the business, she also thought someone might buy the building as a private home.
She said the succession plan was to pass the business onto workers or a non-profit that would keep it in the community, run it collectively, and ensure the values were maintained and carry on. Hepburn said she’d still like to see a younger couple with more time and capacity buy the business and “make something truly beautiful with what we have put into it.”
“We’ve been in fight or flight mode for a couple of years and eventually you don’t have that resilience,” Hepburn said. “I built every business with very little debt and pulled myself up by my bootstraps again and again, and eventually, the boot straps snap. We need to do a better job of investing in people in our communities who care so much and have those community supports be built together instead of relying on a few people. And then when those people burn out, a few other people step up. We need to build better networks of support so people don’t get to that wall.”
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Owning and operating a food service business is one of the hardest things to do, emotionally and physically. Just starting one is a tremendous act of courage, followed by countless imponderables. And few people respond by being more generous to staff. I hope Jessika Hepburn and Chris Graham will someday see The Biscuit Eater as one of the great adventures of their lives together. There is no failure anywhere is this story, which was well told.