To say 2016 was a bad year for Brianna Humphrey isn’t just a euphemism.
Early in the year, shortly after undertaking a three-month renovation on her Timmins restaurant, Radical Gardens, she discovered not one, but three, manufacturer defects on a brand-new fridge.
The hot water heater broke. The pipes burst. The greenhouse furnace stopped working.
And then the vandalism started.
Since May, Humphrey’s restaurant and catering business has been the target of seven break-ins and a rash of vandalism that includes slashed tires, spoiled food, broken windows, a stolen cash register, and a spraypainted van.
One early morning, Humphrey found herself chasing down a would-be thief as he attempted to steal the work truck from her driveway and knocked down her boyfriend in the process.
“I’m pretty sure we have, literally, the worst luck in the world,” said Humphrey while on a recent holiday break. “In the last year, everything that could go wrong has, and then some.”
It’s been an inhospitable environment for a young entrepreneur and her staff, who, by all accounts, have played a key role in revitalizing the agri-food economy in Timmins and the surrounding area.
A pastry chef by training, Humphrey began cultivating organic food crops on a 100-square-foot plot of land on the city’s outskirts a few years ago. Demand for locally grown food was such that she quickly expanded to an acre and began offering weekly food box shares to community members.
Humphrey then organized an online farmers market, sourcing produce and meats from local producers, adding in unique pantry items, including gluten-free offerings. (Humphrey has celiac disease, which is characterized by an intolerance to gluten.)
In 2015, she expanded again, opening the Radical Gardens restaurant, where she uses local products to create new, daily menus of fresh, tasty breakfast and lunch items. She’s booked solid for catering jobs — everything from weddings to Christmas parties — and regularly hosts unique events like the Super Secret Supper Club or the three-day BaconFest food and music festival.
The restaurant has been recognized as the first Timmins eatery to receive a Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice (LEAF) certification, and reviewers on the Radical Gardens Facebook page regularly rave about the quality of the food.
Last year, the business was recognized by the Timmins Chamber of Commerce with the 2016 New Business Award.
Humphrey cites people involved in the city’s growing and problematic drug-related activity as the main source of the problem. The restaurant, located a few blocks from the main downtown shopping area, is in a less commercial part of the city, which Humphrey calls “an extra dark block in the worst neighbourhood in town.”
Yet, she doesn’t want to leave. It would cost too much, for one thing. She and her partner have invested around $150,000 in the building, which had already sat vacant for more than two years before they purchased it.
A bad seller’s market, along with the expenses associated with renovations and the damages from vandalism, mean Humphrey isn’t in a position to move.
“There’s no restaurant in town I could just go buy that’s already ready to go for me, so I would inevitably take a loss — a huge one,” she said. “It would be crippling. For us, if we close those doors, we’re just done, and I refuse to let them beat me. I’m too stubborn.”
The activity does seem to be limited to that area of the downtown.
Noella Rinaldo, executive director of the Downtown Timmins Business Improvement Area (BIA), said that while the area encompassing the BIA, located a few blocks down from Radical Gardens, is not immune to suspicious activity, business owners there haven’t been targetted the way the restaurant has.
“She just seems to have gotten hit so badly,” said Rinaldo, expressing empathy for Humphrey and her staff. “What’s happening with her is not happening with other businesses downtown.”
Rinaldo agreed it could be the specific area of Timmins, which is largely comprised of residential real estate, whereas the BIA has more commercial enterprises where there’s more foot traffic, better lighting, and more regular monitoring by fellow business owners.
A recent survey undertaken by the BIA suggests that only 16 per cent of members are worried about security and, for the most part, their concerns centre on shoplifting, and not break-ins or vandalism.
Of those surveyed, 14 per cent of business owners have security cameras, 18 per cent have alarms, and 37 per cent have both security cameras and alarms. Thirty per cent of respondents have no security in place, but Rinaldo said with the inexpensive cost of cameras, more are considering it.
“We try to watch for things like broken windows and broken doors, and nothing’s happened that we can say there’s been an increase,” she said. “It’s not to say that things don’t happen, but nothing to the extreme that she’s been dealing with.”
Though he emphasized he hadn’t been in direct discussion with Humphrey, Mayor Steve Black said he was aware of the situation and expressed disappointment in the activity.
“Obviously it is disappointing to see a business targeted in this way and can cause significant disruption and financial impact on a small business,” Black said in an email.
“We feel for anyone in the community that has to go through this type of incident, as running a business can be difficult to manage under normal circumstances without these added stressors.”
Black said the Timmins Police Service is aware of the issue, as reports have been filed with the service, and he acknowledged the public support for Radical Gardens.
As for Humphrey and her crew, they’re ready to put 2016 behind them. They returned from a three-week break on Jan. 25 to get back to doing what they do best: create good food.
A crowdfunding campaign launched by friends of the restaurant raised close to $2,000 for the business, which Humphrey said would help fortify the eatery’s security system to include video and audio surveillance. And a staff member planned to move into the neighbourhood in the new year to help keep an eye on the restaurant.
Plans to expand the farm and launch a distillery are now on hold, probably for the next year, while Humphrey recuperates some of the financial loss stemming from the activities of 2016.
But she’s not deterred. She’s proud to be a driving force of change in the Timmins community and said she’ll continue to do her part in growing the city’s agri-food economy.
“I wouldn’t want to do this anywhere else,” she said. “My community is so ridiculously awesome, and they support my restaurant like crazy, and they support my farm.
“To be honest, I’m really happy it’s us and not another business,” Humphrey said. “Steve (her boyfriend) and I are resilient people and my staff are also resilient. We’re thick-skinned and we’re a group of really hard people. I could not imagine this happening to another business. It would cripple them.”