When Old Legacies Meet New Futures

New business owners discuss the joy of buying established culinary businesses in Parksville Qualicum Beach.

A woman smiles as she assists customers from behind a counter at Swell Sweets candy shop

Many of us dream of owning our own business—being our own boss, setting our own hours. For the consummate foodie, owning a culinary business is the perfect marriage of entrepreneurship and passion. But sometimes, it makes more sense to take over an already-existing business, rather than begin from the ground-up.

That’s certainly been the case for some culinary business owners in the Parksville Qualicum Beach region. Former owner Robin Bruner of Swell Sweets took over ownership of the chocolate and candy business on April 1, 2020—not the most opportune of times with the pandemic. “My opening day was a closing day,” she laughs.

“ “I have chocolate every single day—always have!” ” Robin Bruner | Swell Sweets

For Bruner, with an operations management background and a love for chocolate (“I have chocolate every single day—always have!”), buying a pre-existing business in Qualicum Beach was the perfect way to meld her skill set with a desire to stay close to family and be involved in the community.

Despite the difficulties of taking over at the onset of a pandemic, Bruner looks back on the time fondly, saying that she learned some valuable lessons and found many silver linings. She took careful note of not only what people were buying during this time, but also why. “[Swell Sweets] became a source of giving in the community,” she explains. “Little things during the pandemic were thank-you gifts, like ‘I was isolated and [my neighbour] helped me out.’ I realized how much the community relied on this particular business as a source of joy.”

Having been around as a chocolate and cards business for half a century, the newly re-named Swell Sweets has been a source of joy in its community for a long time. “I was just really drawn to the legacy in the community,” Bruner says when asked why she chose to buy this particular business. But, “It’s always hard to come in and take over something and then start doing things differently, because you have a lot of people who have a lot of associations and traditions with that particular business,” she explains. “So for me, it was about carrying on the legacy that was already there. That made it less scary,” she adds.

Continuing with traditions doesn’t mean she hasn’t added her own flair, including changing the corporate structure and the name, and constantly working to carry more B.C. chocolates and sweets, “as a way to give back to the local community.” Bruner notes that the pandemic shone a light on the importance of supporting local businesses and stabilizing the local economy. So not only does her business sell local chocolate, she also gets her packaging local and works with local bookkeepers and advertisers. “It’s far more than just the products on our shelves; it’s a philosophy of how we do business.”

Buying an established business also made sense for Neel Patel, who took ownership of Qualicum Beach Bakery in September of 2022. The bakery has been around for 25 years and has focussed on serving European specialties. Under Patel’s ownership, they are continuing with the European specialties, but also adding Indian cuisine, for “a fusion of European and Indian specialties.”

Two men and a woman pose for a photo behind the counter of Qualicum Beach Bakery

Having worked for various bakeries in Alberta, Patel moved to Vancouver Island with strong skills in the industry. Now owning his own business allows him the creativity to bring his own recipes to the community. “Every Monday we do curries, and on Fridays we do a vegetarian burger.” They also have samosas, and later this year plan to bring Indian-style sweets. And by the way Patel talks about his work, it’s obvious that he invests his heart in his work. “From start to end, it’s a beautiful process,” he says about baking. “Where you touch the dough, where you smell the fragrance of the baking, until the final stage where we present it—it’s all a beautiful journey.”

But although Patel is changing things up, he says that for him, buying an established business made more sense than starting from the ground-up. “An established bakery already has a good clientele,” he explains. “We wanted to start from there and introduce our own items.” Even more than that, he saw purchasing Qualicum Beach Bakery as an opportunity to expand his skill set by learning European techniques. “Helen and Peter, the previous owners, helped us while we were doing the transition. They gave us all their recipes and taught us all their baking styles,” Patel says.

In fact, they spent about three weeks training with Helen and Peter, which was not only beneficial for the new owners, but for Helen and Peter. After running a successful business for 25 years, it can be hard to let go. Patel recalls conversations with Peter, who was nervous to pass over a 25-year legacy, but after working together, his fears were allayed and he was happy to pass it on. As a result, the transition was “seamless,” with customers continuing their patronage as Patel continues the European specialties and introduces his Indian dishes. Although it was a little scary to take over (at what they hoped was the end of a pandemic), Patel is proud to have pushed forward to pursue doing what he loves. “If you do it with heart, it’s always going to be a success,” he says.

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