In 2006, after years of city living, Danielle French left Toronto behind to move with her four young daughters to a 60-acre farm nestled in the rolling hills of rural Ontario. Her marriage was crumbling, and she sought the comfort that only nature could provide. “I fell in love with the land here,” she says. “It was beautiful.”
To make ends meet, French — a stay-at-home mom who had previously worked in commercial real estate — started a small food-delivery service, using home-grown vegetables to make farm-to-table prepared meals. Thanks to word of mouth, the business quickly grew — until the local food inspector realized she didn’t have the required permits. That led French, undaunted, to turn an old shed on the property into a certified commercial kitchen, and to restore a decrepit, pigeon-filled barn into an event space.
Today, French runs South Pond Farms, a “culinary destination” for barn weddings, retreats and special events like bread-baking and wreath-making workshops. Annual revenue is close to C$900,000 (about $680,000). Eldest daughter Carlyle, 25, has joined her in the business, serving as her operations manager. And much to her surprise, French is starting to get plenty of inquiries — from women (many in the U.S.) who want to launch a business just like hers.
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“People say, “I’ve got a garage. I’ve got a barn. I want to do something. How do you do it? How do you get started?” says French. So last year, she decided to host a “Design Your Escape” masterclass at South Pond Farm, at a cost of $1,500 per attendee, and posted it on social media. “I sold out the 2-day workshop in a few days,” she says.
Women flew in from as far away as Utah and Arizona — and it was emotional, as many wanted to start a business in their home or on a dream property because they felt unfulfilled in their chosen careers. Still others were empty nesters who now had the time and the space to chase a dream. “My partner Shawn [Sutcliffe] would drop by and ask why people were there — and every time, there was a lot of tears. There was a lot of emotion,” French says, with a laugh. “I felt like I was on an ‘Oprah’ show.”
Teaching Home Business Opportunities
After 10 years of running South Pond Farms, French has plenty of advice for those who want to open B&Bs or host rustic weddings or simply run home-based workshops. Since the initial workshop last fall, she has run the masterclass four more times and is contemplating offering a retreat-based “Design Your Escape” experience in 2020, possibly with panel discussions.
French’s first tip — and she learned this the hard way — is to “really understand, firstly, what your zoning is. Are you able to do what you want to do?” And if so, “how much is it going to cost you to be compliant?” She recommends consulting a specialist, such as a planner familiar with the ins-and-outs of agritourism, a field that is growing in popularity as farmers try to diversify and increase profits. Accountants and bookkeepers can also be helpful. “Reaching out to other people and gathering information is important,” she says.
While she personally loves the high-stakes business of hosting weddings, French cautions that it’s not for everyone. “I am definitely a negative Nelly on weddings,” she says. “People think they can do it, but it’s a whole different ball game.” For those who want to run wedding venues, she advises that they come up with “really solid projections over the next 5 years — are you just going to rent your space out, or are you going to have food? Understand what you’re going to do and what the costs are to get there.”
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French says she renovated her property over time, using reclaimed materials to lower costs, and hosting events that would often pay for the next improvement. Her godmother, who lives in Germany, also helped fund some of the refurbishing. “A barn is not meant for people. It’s meant for animals,” she says. The biggest outlay? Installing restrooms and a septic system for 140 guests. “It took time, and it definitely took money.”
For business success, French recommends finding a profitable niche. “My love is creating farm-to-table food,” she says. “I thought my niche was going to be people coming here for dinner.” But especially in her rural setting, it wasn’t sustainable. “People aren’t going to be paying $300 a night for dinner.” Her niche is now two-fold — young women who want a pastoral place to be married, and older people who want to experience a taste of farm life via lunch or a workshop. (She also rents cabins to overnight guests who come to hike and rejuvenate.)
French says she connects with both niche audiences because she can easily communicate her passion for South Pond Farms — and she says anyone interested in turning their home base into an event space needs to feel the same. “I love where I live and the beauty of this land,” she says. “It’s the perfect backdrop for your most romantic day. If you get tired of that, people will realize that right away.”
Danielle: The traditional ways of small, boutique farming is just not viable any longer. Everyone that I know here gets into a car and goes away for work, and is not able to stay on the farm. What I really was striving for is to be able to keep my car parked. My farm was going to be a place where it offered enough for us to be able to sustain ourselves and our family.
TEXT: Danielle French – Founder of South Pond Farms – Ontario, Canada
Danielle: South Pond Farms is a culinary destination. We offer country weddings, celebrations, farm-to-table food, workshops teaching people how to use the food that is grown in this area to be a sustainable business.
TEXT: As a child, Danielle spent summers with her grandparents in Michigan.
Danielle: My grandparents, they had this 100 acre farm. I loved being there. My grandmother made bread everyday. All of these years I've been so influenced by my grandmother, wanting to grow my own food, cook on a wood stove, all that sort of stuff.
TEXT: Danielle studied anthropology at McGill University in Montreal.
TEXT: She moved to Toronto, married and had four daughters.
Danielle: I loved where we lived and loved how we spent our time, but I also felt that it was like a real fast-paced road to adulthood, and that I wanted to just slow it down. The only way that I could figure out how to do that was to move to the country. We found this place and I fell in love with the land here.
TEXT: Shortly after moving to the farm, Danielle’s marriage broke up.
Danielle: The land was absolutely crumbling. The barn was falling down. I needed to make this work. I thought, “I have a nice kitchen. I can fit some people in there. I can cook.”
TEXT: Danielle started Farm Flavors, preparing and delivering baskets of prepared meals.
Danielle: So, I never did a proper business plan. I never did the math on this. It just felt like it was good experience. I could cook for more people than my own family. I was learning a little bit about the math and how to cost something out. I just felt like I was doing something completely on my own.
TEXT: Six months into her new business, a local food inspector asked if she had a proper commercial kitchen.
Danielle: I said, “Well, yikes. That's going to be a situation.” I was selling food to the public and I didn't have a handwashing station. I didn't have a proper hooded stove.
TEXT: Shawn Sutcliffe, a local contractor, helped her convert a shed into a professional kitchen.
Danielle: It took me over probably about 18 months to really do all the things that were required of me. The biggest requirement was actually putting in washrooms, and a septic system for 140 guests.
TEXT: Danielle and Shawn became partners and began restoring the barn.
Danielle: People had heard that I had the barn, and they wanted to come and use the barn to be married. And I thought, “Hey, I can do this. I can cook for 140 people. No problem. I can do this.” I was absolutely terrified. I bluffed my way through.
TEXT: In 2012 Danielle started South Pond Farms.
TEXT: She began hosting weddings to pay for more improvements to the farm.
Danielle: I was able to start offering what my dream was: to create brunches and dinners, for people to come and sit here, and enjoy that food. And that we would try to grow as much of our own food as possible.
TEXT: The company also offers cooking classes, workshops and accommodation.
TEXT: Annual revenue is close to C$900,000.
Danielle: People have lost their sense of connection to agriculture. We've lost it, and we want it back. We want a little, tiny piece, and we drive out of the city to go to the country, to pick an apple, to eat a carrot, to have a meal, or simply just absorb it. I think that's what people are looking for.