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Generational Business: Highway 69 outpost has become revered northeastern Ontario landmark

In business for six decades, customer loyalty kept French River Trading Post alive through the pandemic

“Out on the highway where the French River flows there's a place they call the French River Trading Post….”

If you were a kid growing up in northeastern Ontario any time over the last six decades, that catchy jingle was an irresistible call to a world of sweet treats, playful mascots, and other delightful treasures.

As a result, scores of families have made the familiar pit stop at the French River Trading Post – a gift shop, ice cream parlour, and restaurant – while travelling along Highway 69 between Sudbury and Parry Sound.

“It's become a tradition for so many families, which is wonderful,” said Tracey Pearce, the founders' granddaughter, who today runs the business in partnership with her mother, Diane Biggs.

Easily the most recognizable landmark on this stretch of highway, the Trading Post speaks to the enterprising spirit of Lorne and Edith Biggs and their son, Bill, who started the business in 1956 as a tiny outpost along a dusty gravel road at the unofficial boundary between Northern and southern Ontario.

Aside from a handful of established lodges, not much of the area was developed at the time, and it wasn't anything close to the tourism hot spot it is now, noted Pearce.

Her grandfather, Lorne, was originally from Copper Cliff, while her grandmother, Edith, hailed from Niagara Falls.

They had been living in southern Ontario, but it was Lorne's idea to launch a business closer to his hometown, and so they pulled up stakes and headed north.

“He had the foresight to realize that there was going to be a paved highway,” Pearce said. “So they came up from Guelph and bought the property, and the rest is history.”

Despite its popularity today, the Trading Post went through some lean times during its initial years in operation.

“There are stories of my grandpa going out and putting his ear to the road to see if he could hear any cars coming, and if there weren't any cars coming, they'd close for the night,” Pearce said.

“So it wasn't the success back then that it is now, and they had to work very hard and long hours to achieve what we have now.”

Watch the 1990s-era TV commercial below to listen to the iconic French River Trading Post jingle:

After nearly a decade, the Biggs embarked on a series of expansions to grow their fledgling enterprise.

Cabins were constructed in 1964 to give people a place to stay along the highway, which were a hit for many years. Due to structural flaws, they had to be demolished in 2016, Pearce said. The family isn't currently considering a rebuild.

By 1969, the Biggs had opened a small food stand, the Trapper's Shack, where visitors could order takeout and enjoy a meal on site.

A half-dozen years later, it was so busy they couldn't keep up with demand, and so they built a more permanent eatery in its place, Pearce noted.

The Hungry Bear Restaurant operates seven days a week, offering a diverse menu including ‘Hungry Man’ breakfasts and a Wednesday night fish fry. The adjoining Ice Dream Den serves up 16 different flavours of ice cream.

Generations of children have been captivated at the appearance of the Hungry Bear and the Blueberry Hound – the Trading Post's beloved mascots – who appear every hour on the hour to pose for photos, and who are joined this year by a new character, the Chocolate Moose.

But the central attraction remains the Trading Post itself, an expansive gift shop jam-packed with gifts and clothing, jewelry and sculptures, kitchenware, maple products, Indigenous-made moccasins, and its famous cream-and-butter fudge.

When Lorne died in the mid-'60s, Edith and Bill carried on, but it was after Bill and Diane married and took over its operation that the enterprise really blossomed, Pearce said.

She remembers her parents reinvesting in the business as they could afford it.

“Every five or 10 years, they built on as they could with what they had earned the year before in the previous season,” she said. “They built on, and saved and saved, and built on, and turned it into what it is today.”

She and her brother, Ted, weren't recruited to help out until their early teens when "we were both put on a timesheet and that was it,” Pearce laughed.

While Ted's interests eventually led him to Toronto to a career in film production, Pearce stayed close to home, welcoming the opportunity to carry on the family enterprise.

It's a fast-paced environment and a challenge to keep up with demand in a season that only lasts from March and October, Pearce said.

“But I also love being with our staff and the customers, and the fact that it has become such a tradition for people – that's the part I love the most,” she noted.

Supporters have stood by the company through even the toughest times, among them Bill's death in 2006 and the threat of evacuation from the massive Parry Sound 33 forest fire in 2018.

When COVID came along, the French River Trading Post was forced to close for the first time in its history, and Pearce was concerned about the business’ longevity.

But the pandemic has, surprisingly, presented new opportunities.

They've streamlined their operations and cut back their hours, while increasing virtual sales through their online store.

Loyal customers who "just don't want to see us fail” have placed orders from as far as the U.S. and overseas, Pearce said, like the client who recently had an entire case of dips shipped to California.

“We have customers that get home and then they think of something they would like, especially during COVID,” Pearce said.

“We have lots of people that are fudge fans and they needed their fudge and they couldn't get in to get it, so we've been shipping fudge, moccasins, all kinds of stuff.”

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Capacity in the store and at the restaurant remains limited in an effort to protect staff and customers from the still-circulating virus, but with tables and picnic areas set up outside, Pearce said, there are plenty of opportunities for takeout.

Instead of lamenting any time lost due to COVID, Pearce is instead anticipating a strong future for the Trading Post, now celebrating its 65th year in business.

As restrictions are loosened and more people seek adventure away from home, highway traffic is increasing, and travellers are eyeing the French River area as an ideal vacation spot.

That's good news for Pearce and her crew at the French River Trading Post, who are more than ready to welcome them with open arms.

“A lot of businesses have not made it, and we're just so thankful that we have the customers and the loyalty that we do, because we know that people have choices,” Pearce said.

“One thing that we have noticed is that people want to come here and they feel good when they're here, so that's really special to us that everybody still wants to come.”

This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.