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Ontario's northernmost brewery navigates changing environment

The brewery and restaurant in Kenora continues to evolve as it enters its second decade.

KENORA – Running a brewery and a restaurant in a tourist haven like Kenora has its ebbs and flows.

At Lake of the Woods Brewing Company, they are just coming out of the wilderness from the challenges that came from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last five years have been difficult, especially since we’re a company that relies on hospitality and tourism, but also supplies hospitality and tourism,” said Taras Manzie, president and CEO of the Lake of the Woods Brewing Company.

“The knees were chopped out of the industry pretty much overnight, especially with the government mandating that bars and restaurants be closed. That affects us on the bar and restaurant side as we have two floors with room for 275 people, but we also have the manufacturing side that supplies beer to other bars and restaurants.

“That whole time early on was very difficult.”

The company was able to work through those issues though, thanks in part to their distribution partners like the LBCO, The Beer Store and Manitoba Liquor Mart, and by pivoting to make hand sanitizer.

“We did very well with that over a brief period of time,” Manzie said. “That got the company through to paying some bills and staying alive.”

The next step towards getting back to normal was getting people to return to their location on the corner of Park St. and Highway 17.

It’s taken some time, but Manzie thinks things are returning to where they were in 2019.

“The last two years were definitely better than the previous two years, but I really noticed a marketable change in the folks that came up for the May long weekend,” Manzie said.

“Our staffing has become much better from where it’s been over the last few years as well. So, for me, those are good indicators that this will hopefully be a good summer.”

While most people may know of Lake of the Woods Brewing Company for their beverages, the restaurant has been part of their operation since they opened the doors on June 29, 2013.

“It’s always evolving,” Manzie said. “We’re always doing different features and things that come on or drop off the menu, but there are also menu items that have been here since day one. It also depends on the customer’s tastes as they change as well

“We are a scratch kitchen and we always like to try something new and I like to try and do things that other people aren’t doing. If you are doing what everybody else is doing, then you are just a cow in the herd.”

One of those unique elements was the addition of a wood-fired pizza oven, which was brought in prior to the pandemic.

“It takes a bit of skill obviously to work that because you’re not just pressing a button,” Manzie said.

“We actually created a viewing window in our kitchen so that people can see the action that goes on in there. Plus, it also forces my staff to keep it clean, which is good.”

In terms of what’s the most popular item on the menu, that distinction belongs to anything that includes local walleye, which is part of the shore lunch BLT, fish tacos and their London Calling special, a walleye dish that you'll have to try the next time you're in.

“Anyone that’s coming into town from elsewhere wants to know what’s local and what’s available, and we want to support the local fishermen as well,” Manzie said. “There’s definitely a demand for fish and we can’t keep enough of it around.

“People are always looking for something unique and we try to do that here. All of our burgers are hand-formed, our fries are hand-cut and all of the dressings we make are from scratch.

“Then of course, there’s the beer. We’re often doing unique recipes in our brewery here and our ones in Winnipeg and Warroad (Minn.), so there’s a lot of co-mingling that goes on between the three.”

When it comes to the future, the big addition is a 20,000-square-foot brewery expansion with an outdoor “brewer’s village” that is located about five minutes up the road on Valley Drive.

The plans are to have that in operation by August.

“It’s also a beverage plant, so it’s not just a brewery,” Manzie said. “It allows us to craft sodas, sports beverages, flavoured waters and non-alcoholic beer to supplement the beer side, plus we’re also developing spirit-based beverages.”

As that building nears completion, the main location in Kenora is continuing to welcome patrons from near and far.

“We often hear from people that are driving from Thunder Bay or Winnipeg and they always stop at the brewery,” Manzie said. “We’re Ontario’s northernmost brewery and we’re the last town in Ontario, so it’s one of those places that people want to tick off their bucket list.

“There’s still a lot of cachet with craft breweries and I think there will be for a very long time, partially because of what it does for the community.

“It helps create vibrancy and we always want to be that public house where people of all ages can come to. It’s not just about the beer. It’s about the food and it’s about the experience.”

More information on Lake of the Woods Brewing Company can be found on their website.