Ontario’s unofficial anthem calls the province “a place to stand, and a place to grow” … and nowhere is this more resonant than here in Muskoka. With unrivaled natural beauty, it has all the perks of a small-town lifestyle: a strong sense of community, mutually beneficial partnerships, valuable networking opportunities, and friendly colleagues.
Muskoka’s role as host to international travellers and corporate cottagers has provided the impetus to facilitate advanced technologies and accessible infrastructure. People are discovering the benefits of expanding or starting a business in a vibrant area with highly competitive property costs. Here are snapshots of just a few of the entrepreneurs taking their operations to new heights in Muskoka.
From the farm to the bottle: Muskoka Lakes Winery
It all began in 1950, when Orville and June Johnston opened Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in the Muskoka Lakes area. When their son, Murray, and his wife, Wendy, took the reins, they added products, facilities, tours, and special events: the daily Bog to Bottle Discovery is a recognized Signature Canadian Experience, and the Ice Trail welcomes year-round guests.
Inspired by Niagara’s wine region, Wendy became a certified sommelier; and, in 2000, the Johnstons initiated the Muskoka Lakes Winery. Dedicated to the principle of ‘terroir’, they craft wines that reflect their sense of place. The wine is made in small batches by hand from the fruit that grows on the land, and bottled with labels designed by a renowned Muskoka artist. The inaugural Cranberry Wine was soon joined by other local flavours, such as Blueberry and Red Maple Dessert. Today, their award-winning wines are exported internationally, available through online ordering, and found on the shelves of LCBO stores.
Main street roots and global sales: Muskoka Roastery Coffee Co.
With family roots dating back to 1862, Douglas Snell returned to Muskoka after attaining a biology degree with a focus on environmentalism, while his wife, Patricia, commuted to Toronto for her career in the IT industry. In 2000, she took a chance and purchased a café in downtown Huntsville. It led to the formation of a specialty micro-roaster.
The Snells acquired a large production plant, plus a showroom where they do small-scale roasting and offer demonstrations and samples. With Muskokan names like Black Bear and Loon Call, the handcrafted blends are available in whole bean, ground, and pods. A Carbon Neutral company, Muskoka Roastery was the first Canadian firm to source green beans exclusively from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, ensuring sustainable farming and fair wages.
Doug Burns joined the team in 2010, bringing years of international expertise to help take the business to the next level. Now with 14 full-time staff and 18 summer students, international online clients, and wholesale distributors throughout Ontario and the Atlantic (soon to expand nation-wide), Muskoka Roastery has built a brand that challenges global nationals.
Loud and clear: Axiom Audio
Ian Colquhoun’s early experimentation with the art of sound motivated him to establish Axiom Audio in 1980 in hometown Dwight. A couple of years later, he was contracted by an innovative acoustic engineer, Dr. Floyd Toole, to build and test loudspeakers at the National Research Council lab in Ottawa, where Toole’s theories completely revolutionized the industry. Axiom’s reputation for performance and value gained recognition; and, by 1991, the firm expanded its capacity by over 300%. They currently export widely throughout the world.
With 20 employees, Axiom uses advanced computer systems to build state-of-the-art award-winning products, used by major celebrities and studios. The anechoic chamber replicates the one used in Ottawa for research and development. “We’re now introducing cream-of-the-crop wireless products,” said Ian. “They’re powerful but reasonably portable, and can be used in hotspots, even on your boat.” Ian and his staff write the codes and create the programs, ensuring that their systems can be used on all interfaces. Axiom is undeniably one of the best acoustical laboratories in the world. And it’s right here in Muskoka.
Heritage revisited: Muskoka Springs
The business hearkens back to the 19th century, when Muskoka’s early resort industry first beckoned to the city tourists. In 1873, Dugald Brown began a business bottling drinkable water for the visitors, then developed a recipe for Muskoka Dry Pale Ginger Ale … and Brown’s Beverages was born. Eventually, the iconic soft drink faded out of existence until Michael Billinghurst moved to Muskoka and revived it with the launch of Muskoka Springs Natural Spring Water Inc. at the original Brown’s site.
Distribution continued to expand, and today Muskoka Springs offers online sales and private labelling. With the support of new investors, the firm recently re-branded, presenting exciting new products that reflect the spirit of Muskoka with flavours such as Maple Cream Ale, Silver Birch Beer, and Stone Ginger Beer. However, its heritage roots are always held in high respect, with vintage photos, replicated antique wooden crates, and other mementos of its early days. “This business has been around for almost 150 years,” said Michael, “and every new owner will be proud to be its steward.”