“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
In part one we chatted with Bruce about La Huerta Imports and the Powassan Voodoos.
While the Covid pandemic wiped out the 2020-2021 season for the Voodoos, Bruce’s other business of importing passion fruits to Canada was able to operate in almost a business-as-usual type fashion. But Bruce might be the only person around northern Ontario who tried to open a restaurant during a pandemic, although that was far from the original goal when Bruce was eyeing the property on Trout Lake Road.
“I had a company that was run in cooperation with Soulier Meats called 11-17 Food Service and during the run of that company, Average Joes was one of my clients,” says the Sudbury-born Bruce.
“I actually tried to buy this place for five years before I actually got it. They weren’t willing to sell it at the time.”
Bruce says five years ago he saw the housing market outpricing itself down south and he thought a restaurant on the lake would be an extremely attractive enticement.
“I had a vision at the time that the market down south was getting so overpriced and there was a limited number of properties available that just eventually, things would start coming north. So, I had been thinking about buying the place for a while and I finally was able to make a deal with the bank and the previous owners to buy it, and that’s how this started.”
But as they say, timing is everything and the sale became official in February of 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic setting up restrictions in Ontario for the first time just over a month later.
“It didn’t really bother me because I was planning on doing renovations, so I really just thought that it was kind of a convenient time to not have to be open,” says Bruce.
“Nobody else was doing anything. But then it went longer than a few months and I thought, ‘this might turn into a little bit of a disaster' and so I was trying to think at that particular time what the next step was. The Powassan Voodoos were actually still playing hockey and I started to think about how I could differentiate myself from some of the other local establishments in town.”
That is where being one of the only restaurants on a lake has come to pay off.
“I just thought, ‘why can’t I do water delivery?’ And from there I thought that we could do it on SeaDoos and so I talked to a couple of the kids on the hockey team and I said to them, ‘when hockey season is over, would you be interested in doing SeaDoo deliveries?’ Well, the kids jumped at it and as it turns out, it's been a really good operation for us. It’s unique, it’s a bit of a gag, but it certainly suits a purpose for the people who live on these summer islands. They don’t have to go anywhere and they can get food. Plus, I’ve captured the whole market; I mean nobody else can do it.”
And those aren’t the only plans Bruce has for the restaurant.
“My hope was to bring it back to what I remember it as in my late 20s and early 30s. This was a hopping place at one particular time. We used to have dances in here, there was a club in here, and then it turned into a marina. But it all kind of went away.”
Bruce says he believes this will become another staple in North Bay.
He says the work they have done since taking over includes renovations into the dining area, the kitchen, and even putting in new docks. But it's not just the dining experience they are focusing on. We have lots of ideas, that would’ve happened this year if Covid hadn’t come along. It’s really just thinking outside of the box and being prepared to do some different things.”
Bruce says change is accepted among the paying public in the Gateway City.
“I find the clientele in North Bay is very open to new ideas. And I felt very humbled in a certain way because people have been very supportive through this stretch, which is nice. I feel the population of North Bay has been pretty responsive to restaurants in the city during this time. I think people are spending their dollars, probably once or twice a week on take-out, but they share it, they spread it around and try to keep everyone afloat.”
In everything Bruce has put his name to, it has been because he felt it made good sense business-wise and had a passion for his ideas to make those businesses work. The one business that might have been a passion first, before he thought it would make good business sense, is his ownership of 14 racehorses.
“At a very young age, around 15 or 16 I got introduced to Canadian Hall of Fame Jockey Sandy Hawley at Woodbine Racetrack. And I always had this idea that if I ever got the opportunity that I would love to own a racehorse,” Bruce explains.
“As luck should turn out, my son was playing men's league hockey in Toronto and one of the guys on his team, Don MacRae, turned out to be a trainer at Woodbine. Graeme called me and said, ‘hey dad, you know how you’ve always wanted to have a horse? Well, I think we might have an opportunity.’ My daughter loves horses and so she got wind of this situation and between my wife, my son, and my daughter, we got into the horse racing business and Don MacRae is still our trainer.”
Bruce says the horses are treated like athletes, “We expect our trainer to put the right horses in the proper race and I expect the horse to be treated properly. All of our horses are checked out by veterinarians regularly and they are not drugged, I just don’t believe in that. They didn’t choose to be a racehorse, so our horses are babied.”
And just like athletes, Bruce says the horses know when it's go time, “When its race day, they know its race day. They get jacked up just like an athlete does. They spin in their stall and they aren’t really interested in eating and they start to get really aggressive and pull their ears back. When they get out onto the track and they see the starting gate, they cannot wait for those gates to open, they just want to run. They are amazing animals.”
Unlike his other businesses, Bruce says this one he can actually spend time with and not feel the stresses of the day-to-day operations.
“I go to the track or to the barn and I can spend two hours in the barn feeding everyone’s horses and my stress level just comes right down in those two hours. I’ll come home smelling like a horse, but I’ll drive all the way to Toronto, just to play with the horses for a couple of hours and then I’ll come all the way back. That’s my relief.”
It’s also a relief when your business investments pay off and so far, being a horse owner has been a good investment for Bruce.
“I’ve had a lot of fun and some good luck with horse racing,” says Bruce. “My very first race we won a Grey Stakes race and that rarely happens. I own 14 racehorses. “Avroman” is three years old and he is Queens Plate eligible for August. So, another item on the bucket list is to hopefully have him run in the Queen's Plate. Will he win? I have no idea, but just to have a horse run is, for me, very exciting.”
Bruce says there is no secret to his success but credits working hard, and being lucky enough to have a lot of good mentors in his life to show him the ropes.
He adds, “Without having a wife that allows me to do all the crazy stuff I’ve done...I’m not so sure that other people would be as forgiving. We met in North Bay in a line at the movie theatre. She’s pretty much let me do whatever I like to do, and I’m so appreciative of that.”
If you have a story idea for Jobs of the Future, send Matt an email at [email protected]