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Patricia Snell, President and Co-Founder

"You have a lot of guts Patricia, but this won't fly," were the words offered by one local businessman as the Muskoka Roastery Coffee Company started operations in 2000. Well, this proved not to be prophetic, and the company Patricia co-founded is now becoming a standard-setter in the Canadian coffee market.

Success is often equal parts inspiration and perspiration, and this story is no different. It begins with Patricia approaching a crossroads, after a 17 year career in the IT industry that included 10 years of weekly commutes from Muskoka to Toronto. Her dream was to find a local opportunity anchored in the Muskoka community that would allow her to “control her own destiny.” The inspiration came while sitting in Seven Main Café in Huntsville - why not buy the café and see where that would lead? It led, in short order, to the decision to become a specialty coffee micro-roaster.

Patricia had traded waking at 4 a.m. to drive to Toronto, for waking at 3 a.m. to roast coffee, and it was a choice she “never doubted was the right decision.” “Those early days,” she says, “learning about the coffee origins and developing the Heritage blends don’t seem so long ago.” But, the Muskoka Roastery has come a long way from the days of hand-writing labels for the first wholesale orders, and 7 day work weeks have, for the most part, been consigned to history.

For any young women (or men) who might have similar dreams about starting and running their own business, Patricia advises: “Have a clear vision of what you want to achieve…what does success look like? Make sure that your family is on board because pursuing the dream will touch every part of your life. Don’t give up, even when you hit obstacles, which you certainly will; dig deep and overcome the challenges. Never stop looking for ways to improve or become the best. And finally, if you are blessed with success, don’t forget the people who helped you to get there.”

And to those who questioned her judgement (or sanity) at the outset? As Patricia sits outside on the deck at the Snell home overlooking beautiful Mary Lake, enjoying a cup of Northern Lights, she just smiles and says, “There were times when I questioned my own sanity, but the dream, which we are still pursuing, was always worth it.”

Douglas Snell, Roaster Emeritus & Co-Founder

When Douglas Snell’s pioneering great-grandfather arrived in Muskoka 150 years ago, it was in a wagon pulled by a team of oxen. What he found on his arrival was a tract of forested land, with precious little soil covering the granite rock; a harsh introduction to farming. His response to this challenge was, in the words of Doug’s father, “to just make a go of it.” If the Snell family had a motto that would undoubtedly be it, because that attitude is alive and well, three generations later.

Doug looks back on his childhood growing up on the farm carved out of the Muskoka wilderness as, “a much simpler time, with all sorts of farm chores; pitching hay, pitching straw, pitching manure… we definitely did a lot of pitching. Threshing time was really neat, with everybody in the community helping to get the grain crop in. There were also long summer days building forts or swimming in the creek.”

By the time Doug left Muskoka to gain his biology degree, with a focus on environmentalism, he carried with him a fascination with all things mechanical, tracing back to time spent with his father repairing the farm equipment, including the threshing machine.

Unsurprisingly, Doug would ultimately find working for others, outside Muskoka, as unfulfilling. In 1989, after ten years “away”, the Snell family packed up their suburban Toronto home to “make a go of it” by building their own homestead on land belonging to the original Snell farm. It would be poetic if the return to Muskoka was in an oxen-drawn wagon, but in the intervening 125 years a U-Haul truck had become a somewhat more popular option.

Doug is responsible for the strong craftsmanship that underpins the Muskoka Roastery Coffee Company. He sees “a link between what I learned on the farm growing up and the whole process of sourcing and roasting coffee. [Plus] learning the technical aspects of roasting was really not much of a stretch given my background.”

Looking back at the company’s evolution, Doug finds “the creation of the Heritage portfolio [as] the most rewarding part.” Seeing the market respond to his vision of Muskoka-inspired products has been “excellent.” He said, “There’s a lot of me in those blends and those names; things that inspired and shaped me as a kid, and I am really excited to see them come alive with the launch of the new packaging graphics.”

When he was asked if he could take pleasure out of co-founding a successful coffee company that didn’t have Muskoka as its base of operation and inspiration, Doug just shook his head and said, “Not a chance.”

Doug Burns, CEO

This isn’t the first story ever written about a businessman who trades in a life of airplanes and meetings for a simpler, more balanced life in a small community, but it may be one of the few where the product at the centre of the story remains coffee; for 29 years and counting.

Over half of Doug’s life has been spent in the coffee industry. He estimates that he “has travelled to around 36 different countries in the world, learning every aspect of the coffee business; from where and how it is grown, to the role it plays in people’s daily lives.” If that remains the constant, then what led Doug to Muskoka and the Muskoka Roastery Coffee Company?

“It started with cottaging in Haliburton as a kid and then with the realization that my family needed an anchor point as my career took us abroad. That anchor point became our small cottage on Lake Muskoka.” As we walk up to that cottage, which Doug now calls home, he remarks that “we were struck by the beauty of a setting which probably hasn't changed all that much from when the place was originally built in 1886.”

Looking back, the path to the Muskoka Roastery Coffee Co. seems similarly straight. Doug recollects that, “when I first met Patricia, I saw a great little coffee company, that was producing a demonstrably better product, and was a bit of a secret outside of a passionate core group who had discovered what hand-crafted coffee can deliver. She was ready to elevate the business to the next level and I was delighted to join the team to play a role."

When asked for a few examples of what sets the Muskoka Roastery apart from some of the other coffee companies he came across in those 36 countries, Doug smiles and asks, “how much time do you have?” When pressed, he offers, “product quality; a real commitment to making a meaningful difference in the countries where we source our coffee; and a focus on giving something back to the community right here in Muskoka, where there is a lot of need.” 

As we sit down on the porch and look out across to the islands in the distance, Doug leans forward to make one more point. “When I wake up every day in Muskoka, I realize that I am pretty fortunate. After all, not everyone has the opportunity to fit in a kayak or bike ride after work. At the Muskoka Roastery Coffee Co, we’re happy to be measured by what we choose to do with that good fortune.”