When a parks bylaw was approved by Niagara-on-the-Lake council in March, Queenston resident Abbie Gowans breathed a sigh of relief. Her summer business, delivering gourmet five-course meals for two in a fancy wooden picnic box on wheels, would be acceptable under the new rules.
This will be the second straight summer running Picnix for the 22-year-old Laura Secord Secondary School graduate and current University of Waterloo arts and business student. Last year, after having completed two previous cooperative education semesters in Gatineau and Mississauga, she decided to start her own business to fulfill the requirements of her program.
“I had (co-op) job offers in Amsterdam and Toronto, and I was really excited about both of them,” remembers Gowans. “Unfortunately, because of COVID, those both got cancelled. My dad had been following this Picnix company in Vancouver, kind of thinking about it here in Niagara. He encouraged me to try running something myself.”
Gowans looked into the university’s Enterprise Co-op program, which provides mentors to help students start their own businesses. She and her father, Keith, reached out to Simon Pearson-Roach, the founder of Picnix. He was excited at the prospect of his company building a presence in the Niagara area.
Keith got to work in his renovated barn/garage, redesigning Pearson-Roach’s original carts to make them lighter and more functional. Once he had a number of them ready to roll, Abbie launched Picnix Niagara in 2020, taking bookings through an offshoot of the Vancouver operation’s website.
The concept is perfect for NOTL. Abbie prepares the menu at home. They load up the picnic wagon, tossing in reusable dining ware, a blanket and a few other extras, and deliver the cart to Simcoe Park at a pre-arranged time. Patrons can then wheel it to their chosen location, where they unfold the cart into a makeshift table to enjoy their picnic. Abbie returns to pick it all up at another pre-arranged time.
Last Friday she had a special booking for a birthday picnic. She parked her car near Queen’s Royal Park and wheeled the Picnix cart across to the gazebo, where she laid down a blanket and attached an umbrella to the cart. Mical Lysias of Welland was planning to surprise her boyfriend with a romantic lunch.
Lysias left a five-star review on the Picnix website following her experience. “Excellent,” the review said. “The set-up was amazing and the food was awesome.”
Abbie has five carts in operation right now, with Keith currently in the process of building another three. With her Niagara website now exclusive of the Vancouver operation’s, she’s busy seven days a week, and will only get busier as the province opens up and more tourists return to town. She estimates that 70 to 80 per cent of her customers so far have come from the GTA.
Picnix offers four different menus, including dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan options. Gluten-free options are also available, and items can be mixed and matched from one category to another. Each menu is five courses, including a green summer salad and a dessert. Water and lemonade is also provided. And Abbie is dedicated to supporting other local businesses through Picnix.
“A lot of the vegetables and fruits are sourced locally,” she explains. “I try to get as many from local farms and small businesses. We get our local honey from somewhere on Line 6, and when the blueberry farm opens up, I’m a regular customer there.”
For the May holiday weekend, Abbie had all five carts fully booked.
“I woke up at 7 a.m.,” she says, “and prepared food until about 11. Then I delivered the lunches for 12. It was the first time I had to close off a day on the site, which was super exciting, though a little nerve-wracking. And my Mom (Sandra) was so clutch, if I could use the slang, helping with all the dishes in the kitchen.”
Abbie credits both of her parents for instilling in her the entrepreneurial mindset that it takes to run the business. She showed signs of that mindset as early as 13 years ago.
“My parents own a B&B, and when I was around 9 or 10, I created a fudge business,” she remembers. “I would make fudge and sell it to the guests. I made a few batches a week. During the summer we would steadily have all three rooms booked. I would go out there with my fudge, packaged with a sticker that said The Redcoat Fudge, and I would sell it to them for a dollar apiece.”
When speaking about her business, her enthusiasm is contagious. Her mind seems to be full of ideas on how to get the word out about Picnix. She talks of social media influencers and bloggers taking notice, and has captured the attention of wine tour companies and even CAA, which is interested in adding her to its list of discounts offered to members.
The Picnix carts are attention-getters. She often hears from her patrons that people stop to ask where they got the set-up. She ensures that she loads each cart with her business cards and pamphlets so those patrons can help spread the word.
She’s hoping to bring Picnix to other parks in the future, perhaps in Niagara Falls or at Queenston Heights. And she is also looking at ways to expand beyond her current demographic, which she defines as the 25 to 45-year-old age group.
“I was thinking of starting a dessert sunset picnic option,” explains Abbie. “It would be on the lower price point, for those who would want something smaller. That could potentially be happening in the near future. It would be a cute thing to do for a date night.”
Abbie will graduate from Waterloo next spring, and hasn’t decided which road she might take at that time. The popularity of Picnix so far has given her at least one option to consider.
“I think it definitely has huge prospects to grow,” she says. “It’s such a great idea. It’s a great thing for people to do. It’s super unique, super Instagrammable, as people like to say nowadays. It’s a great way for people to spend quality time with each other, too.”
When asked about expanding into other markets herself, she doesn’t fully count that out either.
“I think it’s definitely a possibility down the line,” she tells The Local. “We were talking to a cooler company who makes a bike attachment, and they thought it would be a great idea to bring to Toronto or even up north. Maybe we’ll explore that option, either with Simon or without.”
The basic Picnix package is $125. Deliveries to Simcoe Park are made at noon or 6 p.m., seven days a week. Visit picnixniagara.com for information.