Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Evan McEachern and Alex Rice have a spirited plan
A yellow tractor was busy cleaning up the latest dump of February snow from the parking lot at the new Blue Lobster Public House on the main street of Stellarton when I arrived for a guided tour of the eatery and production facility. I was meeting business partners Alex Rice and Evan MacEachern and a few of their team members. We had a couple of hours before they would open to customers, so instead of circling the block for a spot clear of snowbanks, I pulled into the loading dock at the rear of the sprawling building that was once home to a wholesome dairy group and now one of the largest independent makers of booze in Nova Scotia—it was still a place to get a good drink.
Rice, president of the Nova Scotia Spirit Company, says his partners had designs to open the eatery, one of the newest channels of the fast-growing booze biz in the summer of 2020. Four years ago, they had purchased the property that was once home to the Allen Dairy and then Scotsburn Dairy from lawyer and developer Jamie MacGillivary. They quickly sunk several million dollars into a refit and re-engineering of the legacy building on the busy east end of the main drag. With much of the mechanization for their beer, spirits, and soda production complete, the final phase was a gastropub-style eatery with an outdoor beer garden that could seat up to 200 guests. The company had been pretty much bulletproof with their business plans for expansion over the previous half dozen years, but what they couldn’t dodge was a direct hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I remember the day I heard construction was shutting down in New Brunswick,” remembers Rice of the early days of the restrictions that would immobilize most sectors of the East Coast economy for the better part of two years. Rice’s usual mantra was “just got for it.” This time it was, “just shut
it down.” And that’s what Rice, his business partner Evan MacEachern, and the rest of the team did. Rice says there were plenty of other things to think
about at the time, including how to show a little love to their licensee partners who were suffering the blow from the sweeping shutdowns.
The Nova Scotia Spirit Company, which got its start in an old laundromat in Trenton in 2015, had built its reputation on relationships. Something that MacEachern was very good at doing. He had come to the group via the Legendary Hospitality Group in Halifax. Having managed destination eateries and bars like the Stubborn Goat, he knew the importance of building the brand and connections with the operators and this had become a critical path to their success, especially with the launch of their ready-to-drink products like Blue Lobster Vodka Sodas.
While their consumer sales remained steady, like other craft distilleries and breweries in the region, they lost that sales vein almost overnight.
While working on their own pandemic pivot, Rice says his team was compelled to assist their licensee partners. They quickly launched the Big Tip, a program that would give a little lift to front-line workers in the establishments that championed their products. Alex sent one of his managers to the bank one spring day at the beginning of the pandemic to withdraw $50,000. MacEachern says that they spent the next several weeks mailing $50 bills and vouchers for a six-pack of Blue Lobster Sodas to any front-line worker in the hospitality business in Nova Scotia.
He says that it was a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but they were grateful to be in the position to help in some small way.
Since the early days of hand bottling their first batches of spirits in an old laundromat in Trenton, N.S. the company has continued to double their top-line sales every year, except for the first year of the pandemic. Their launch into the ready-to-drink business, a beverage category that is projected to be in the billions of dollars in Canada in the next five years, positioned the N.S. Spirit Company as one of the largest independent producers of alcoholic beverages in the region. Despite the setback of the pandemic, Rice says they are close to recapturing their sales targets with licensees. Rice, MacEachern, and mostly silent partner Dan Allen who lives in B.C. (where the plan for the spirits company startup was distilled) have continued to scale up their operation. Their vision is the creation of the Blue Ocean Group, a portfolio of companies that includes spirits, sodas, beers, cider, and most recently, wine.
Rice and MacEachern credit timing and the ability to attract great talent as integral aspects of their growth.
“I think our best example of innovation is with our human capital,” says Rice, who believes that wooing Evan MacEachern away from his gig in the Halifax hospitality business was one of those first lucky strikes.
“I think one of the great things about this company and the Blue Lobster Public House is the people and their desire to live and work in Pictou County,” adds Rice.
When this whole thing started, we were looking for a great place to do business. “I remember reading a position paper, I think it was by Deloitte, that said Pictou County was a great place to do business. So, if they said it was great then it must be,” he laughs, citing that he has upwards of 100 individuals on his team that started with two guys spitting out ideas for a fun venture together over a beer in Burnaby, B.C. less than a decade ago.
As the weeks, and then months, of the pandemic ticked by, Rice and MacEachern picked away at the details to finish and open the doors of the Blue Lobster Public House. They opened in early December 2021. They never wanted to open with the heavy weight of restrictions, however, in late fall when it looked like regulations were going to relax and capacity in public spaces was going to increase, they put the jets on. Less than two weeks later, the Omicron wave hit the province with a bang, and they were faced with the same realities of so many of the licensees they were trying to support. But doing what they could, the team welcomed their first patrons, and as restrictions eased again in the new year, they were managing waitlists for tables.
Rice says the 30,000 sq. ft. they occupy today has a few jigs and jags in the floor plan that were the result of several expansions when the facility operated as a dairy, but the unique footprint was exactly what the company needed to bring together the concept of production and a dining experience.
Taking a walk through the building with Rice, MacEachern, and two of the newest team members, executive chef Greg Malcolm and general manager Stephanie Richards, both with emotional ties to Pictou County, you get a sense of the company’s evolution and the strength of the Atlantic Canadian brand. For each of the last two years, they have shipped more than 10 million cans of vodka sodas from the Stellarton location.
Patrons will have the opportunity to tour the facility once it’s back to business-as-usual, but for now, they are greeted on entry with a licensed storefront with the product, branded merchandise, and a good view of the gleaming stainless tanks that were fabricated in P.E.I. They also have their bellies full of Painted Boat lager, a product launched in 2018.
A full-sized food truck with a serving window in the eatery is part of the kitchen that has kept people talking, and an element that sets the venue apart from other establishments in the area.
“We wanted to do something different, and I think we have,” says Rice. “We wanted to create an elevated dining experience, but having to remember that we are essentially a pub and brewhouse, so we took that into account when designing the menu.”
Chef Greg Malcolm, who has worked throughout Canada, and most recently in Halifax, was tasked with creating a traditional pub menu with a little added flair. He says two of the current favourites are the tuna stack and an ice cream sandwich that he says pays homage to the days when the Public House was a dairy.
When Nova Scotians say goodbye to restrictions and the province eases into summer, general manager Stephanie Richards and her staff expect to be welcoming hundreds of patrons on the daily. The restaurant has capacity for 100 and additional event space on the mezzanine, with its own bar and washrooms that can welcome up to 60 guests. Perhaps the biggest game changer is the outdoor beer garden concept that will stage musical performances and where guests can kick back by a firepit or try their skill with lawn games. Rice says that with some innovation, they hope to be able to use the beer garden in the shoulder seasons.
When the snowbanks and the pandemic mandates melt away in the month of March, Rice says he wants to host an event for the former dairy employees. “The people who used to work here are very much a part of this story and we want them to see how this place has transformed, but also to notice the little nods to what used to be.”