It is rare today in a market crowded with big box stores to find a thriving multi-generational business such as North Bay’s Burrows Country Store and Garden Centre. With 107 years in business, the third generation of the Burrows family continues to serve loyal customers and evolve to meet changing customer demands.
The original Burrows Country Store was started by Harvey Burrows in 1915 at the corner of Cassells and Percy in North Bay’s downtown. Harvey Burrows was born in North Bay and raised his own family in the small Northern Ontario city.
The original store sold groceries and eventually added livestock feed, agricultural products and was a distributor for Purity Flour Mills. Harvey retired in 1958 and handed the reins over to his son Jack.
Jack Burrows moved the business to its current location at Third and Cassells. Due to competition with other larger grocery chains that began to proliferate the city, they decided to eliminate the groceries and focus on farm feed, agricultural products, pet supplies and the garden centre.
Jack and his wife Elaine ran the store until he was elected as mayor for the City of North Bay in 1995. Burrows, who passed away in 2013, was very involved in his community, not only as a politician but as a community builder. He was a founder of the North Bay and Area Community Foundation.
With Burrows gone to city hall, his daughter Debbie and her husband Bob Hudson were next in line. Both were full-time teachers and had to seriously consider the career change.
“We took our time to think about giving up our secure positions in education to take on a thriving business,” Debbie Hudson explained.
Bob took a leave of absence to get acquainted with running a business and eventually left teaching to become co-owner with his wife in 2001. Debbie continued to teach and work in the store part-time during the spring and summer, eventually joining her husband full-time as well.
They both enjoy working together but mostly love serving the community, much like her parents. Burrows was never far away, always there in the background supporting and encouraging.
“My dad was a gentle and patient man, loved by his customers and I learned a great deal from him about customer service,” recalled Debbie.
By the time they took over the store, the garden centre was the main focus and they offered three full-time landscaping crews for design, installation, maintenance, sodding and interlocking brick.
“Being a family-run business means we have more flexibility to make decisions,” Debbie explained. “Our employees are the best. Our manager suggested we start selling ladies’ fashion, and at first we were not so sure but it has been selling very well.”
In fact, Burrows Country Store has a satellite location in the Northgate Mall that features Canadian-made fashion.
“We only purchase Canadian brands, which can be difficult to source sometimes,” she shared.
They have also brought in men’s fashion and gifts. During the Christmas season, the family pyjama lines were very popular. They also brought in puzzles and games during the pandemic and, as imagined, sales are brisk.
“We have always carried bird feed at the garden centre but during the pandemic it has been in high demand,” Debbie said.
The store has evolved over the years and each owner has responded to what their customers need.
Debbie recalled stories she heard about her grandfather and the early store.
“I remember stories about the horse-drawn wagons and how they used to load up supplies at the store to take into the lumber camps,” she recalled.
“My grandfather would let them leave their horses to rest in the yard.”
Today the store continues to offer farm feed, pet supplies and supplies for the growing number of bird watchers.
Both Debbie and Bob have followed in the Burrows way of doing business, which includes contributing to the community. They received the Nipissing University/Canadore College Small Business of the Year award in 2010 and the Bell Excellence Business Award for Small Business of the Year in 2017.
Like other children of Jack and Elaine Burrows, his grandchildren have worked in the store during the summer breaks and — who knows — maybe this business has another 100 years ahead.
This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.