Unlike most of the stories readers are accustomed to seeing in this space, the following is not a journey that anyone can truly replcate. This is the story about how our soon-to-be-released Local Flavour guide came to be. I have sprinkled ads and photos from many of the businesses represented in the guide throughout this narrative. If it is not fully obvious, I will state explicitly that we are very excited about this project. This is an Eatdrink story at the moment, but the guide is the story of hundreds of hard-working creative people, in scores of businesses that make Southwest Ontario a vital and exciting place to live in. We’re thankful for the opportunity this has created to work with such an illustrious group.
Change is never easy, nor without risk. After publishing London’s Local Flavour perennially for the better part of a decade, the Eatdrink team decided to explore an expansion of that popular culinary guide into a broader territory. There had been plenty of positive feedback from participants in this annual undertaking, who each shared a stake in putting a high quality guide together. Tens of thousands of hard copies were eagerly picked up by interested consumers — a mix of tourists and locals — faster than ever in 2019, and thousands more are reading Local Flavour online. This joint effort was a success in every measurable way, and effectively showcased the culinary assets of the city of London. It struck us here at Eatdrink, however, that London could benefit even more by being part of a guide that would draw more attention throughout Southwest Ontario. Discussions ensued, and the responses from London establishments were extremely positive.
Defining the Territory
We understood that a broader guide would serve the interests of a public with a passionate hunger and thirst for quality local food and drink. Back in 2011, we’d published an award-winning culinary guide sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism for the then-newly-created Regional Tourism Organization One (RTO1), soon named the Southwestern Ontario Tourism Corporation (SWOTC). We analyzed that region’s diverse strengths, and identified those that were offering a genuinely local experience. The geographic parameters were somewhat disappointing to us because of Eatdrink’s strong roots in Perth County (Stratford especially) and Huron County, but those counties were incorporated by the province into neighbouring RTO4.
In more recent years, through publishing Eatdrink, and in particular running our popular “Road Trip” features, we’ve come to know firsthand the current strengths of this area. Our beer and wine columnists maintain a regional focus and we’ve been so excited to see the creative explosion of craft breweries (there was only one local craft brewery when we launched Eatdrink in 2007) and the growth in number and quality in our local wineries. Add to that new cideries and distilleries, and the almost universal embracing of local products by our better restaurants. The list of potential and worthy candidates for a regional guide is truly enormous.
The parameters of “local” that have been defined for our guide stretches from Windsor through Chatham-Kent and Elgin County to Woodstock, up to Stratford and over to Goderich in Huron County. Would we find enough interested participants needed to make this work? We got our answer in very short order: a resounding YES!
The small but mighty Eatdrink team fanned out and had many exciting meetings with old acquaintances and new. Participants signed on but our momentum really accelerated when we got a solid boost from SWOTC, who saw an opportunity to promote their region’s extensive culinary resources and multiply their own efforts by supporting our project. (If you are unfamiliar with SWOTC, especially as a tourism-related business, I encourage you to visit swotc.ca post haste! The good folks there offer tremendous marketing and research support.) Through our SWOTC connection, we solidified enhanced support from the local tourism offices as well as the Ontario Tourism Information Centres, who will be helping promote the guide through their physical locations and online. This made it even easier for new businesses to see the benefits of participating.
The gratifying response led to our fist unforeseen problem: So many new profiles to assemble that we couldn’t meet the initial deadline we had established. As far as problems go, this is one of the better ones to have, but the pressure to deliver a guide that merited a wait is intense. Needless to say, we have been busy, as we far exceeded our most optimistic targets for a first volume of this scope.
We also faced a more physical challenge. Can we actually fit everyone interested into one publication? Yes we can, but we had to change the binding to a “perfect bound” style — readers will love this — to accommodate twice the page count. The handy size is retained, but this guide will have far more heft. More important, in the end, we will not only have a bigger guide, but a better guide. I soon realized that we are creating a more diversified publication, built on the strengths of our previous guides, but a more accurate reflection of the culinary industry as a whole. That is satisfying on so many levels.
Our amazing restaurants continue to get their due in this guide, and we’re able to highlight so many of them here. Our biggest frustration with Eatdrink is the constraints on the number of stories we can tell in any one issue, which is not an issue here. Our greatest strength with Eatdrink is the quality of our writers. Even our BUZZ column, which could have been handled as a laundry list of events, is engagingly assembled. While a culinary guide is most definitely not a magazine, we have developed a format that marries the practical functionality of a strong guide with good writing, in a way that invites exploration. Each profile is a small but powerful snapshot of a local independent business that will reward your interest with a unique and positive experience. We were selective in who was invited into this guide.
I am particularly pleased with how we have grown our Craft Beer section of the guide. A dozen of our region’s best brewers are represented, from small family-run operations such as Shakespeare Brewing Co. in the small hamlet of Shakespeare, or Storm Stayed Brewing Co. in London, to the stunningly beautiful Cowbell Brewing Co. operation in Blyth and Toboggan Brewing Co., smack-dab in Downtown London.
The Lake Erie North Shore wine region is also well showcased with four of their best, and Alton Farms Estate Winery continues to represent the emerging Huron Shores wine region. Also especially satisfying to me is the inclusion of two craft distilleries: Wolfhead Distillery in Amherstburg and Junction 56 Distillery in Stratford. Add in the Twin Pines Orchards & Cider House in Thedford, and Munro Honey & Meadery in Alvinston, and the spectrum of artisanal beverage producers is here in force.
I am also glad that we are including some of our best Agri-Tourism Attractions, helping to complete the actual farm-to-table ethos that we talk about so much. From berry producers (and more!) such as Heeman’s in London to the pickle-makers at Sunshine Farms in Thamesville, this guide will truly offer an authentic taste of what Southwest Ontario has to offer.
Local Flavour: Southwest Ontario Culinary Guide will be published in late November. Copies will be widely available, and a list of pickup locations will be posted on the localflavour.ca website. The entire publication will also be available to read online, on any device, in a handy flipbook version that will include online links to each establishment. Every profile will also be available as a separate “story” that can be easily shared on Facebook or with a Twitter or Instagram link. We proudly look forward to seeing people using this guide.