Sabine and Michael Schoenknecht are applying lessons learned in their native Germany to build a successful business in rural P.E.I.
Growing up in Germany, Sabine Schoenknecht has many fond memories of her family homestead.
“We grew our own vegetables and my father was a beekeeper,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to do that at some point as well.”
However, that plan went on hold when she and her husband Michael immigrated to Canada. They tried Calgary and then Vancouver before deciding big city life was not for them. The plan then, Schoenknecht recalls, was to homestead (a less common term for farming), preferably somewhere in Atlantic Canada.
That dream became reality in 2013 when they moved to the coastal P.E.I. community of Murray Harbour North to establish the Lucky Bee Homestead. Schoenknecht calls her first impression of Canada’s smallest province “magical,” a pronouncement she stands by.
To pay the bills, they began growing vegetables, kept chickens, and followed in her father’s footsteps as beekeepers. Schoenknecht says their goal from day one was to be as self-sufficient as possible. They grew organic vegetables and canned preserves and before long were selling their honey at farmer’s markets, first at nearby Cardigan and then in Charlottetown.
They formed Lucky Bee Homestead in 2017 and, a year later, formed a second company, Atlantic Mustard Mill. Now they sell a line of gourmet condiments, including jams, vinegars, chutneys, and authentic German mustards. They grow many of their own ingredients using natural practices and source locally whenever possible for items they can’t produce.
The couple is dedicated to ensuring their operation produces as little waste as possible. When they were selling predominately at the farmer’s markets, they always paid a deposit to encourage customers to bring back their glass containers.
Even though they’ve shifted away from selling directly to consumers and move most of their product through small independent stores in the Maritimes, Schoenknecht says from time to time they get requests from people who want to give back their jars.
“We are more than happy to take them,” Schoenknecht says.
They may have more than the usual amount of jars coming back in the next few weeks as they’ve returned to their roots, so to speak. This past October the couple returned to selling direct to customers during the recent Farm Day in the City Market in Charlottetown. Schoenknecht described the event as “fantastic,” saying, “We were busy all days and we sold out of a number of the products we took.”
She says it was a natural for them to run their operation on energy produced by solar power. While harnessing energy from the sun may be relatively new in eastern Canada, it’s old news in their native Germany.
“Solar power has been used in Germany for decades, so we were well acquainted with it,” she says. “It’s the best way to reduce our environmental footprint.”
Schoenknecht jokes that “we probably raised some eyebrows when we installed the system, but now as oil prices are escalating people want to know more about how it works.”
She says they’re only too happy to answer any questions, not only about solar power, but the steps their operation is taking to reduce waste and be as environmentally friendly as possible.
When they decided to make the move to selling predominately at the wholesale level, Schoenknecht says they naturally went to the smaller shops “because they supported us when we were getting started. We feel it’s important for small, local businesses to support each other.”
The products of the two companies are now sold in 120 shops (some of them seasonal) throughout the Maritimes, and a handful of locations in Ontario.
“We recently got our first location in Quebec, so we are pretty excited about that too,” Schoenknecht says.
She admits one question that often surfaces is whether honey is a main ingredient in all their mustards. While the Mustard Mill does offer a honey mustard variety, she says the short answer is no. She says some of the confusion may stem from the fact the mustard was originally sold under the Lucky Bee Homestead brand before developing a separate label.
They make more than 50 different varieties of mustard, from traditional old German mustard to a variety using P.E.I. wild blueberries.
When the couple first arrived in the province, they quickly became involved with the P.E.I. Connectors program. Spearheaded by the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce, the program connects newly arrived entrepreneurs with mentors in the business community. They stayed connected and are glad to offer their advice to newcomers.
“When people come to a foreign country, they’re already adapting to so many things,” Schoenknecht says. “So it’s great to have this connection.”
Her main piece of advice is to “keep it small at first, don’t make big changes! That was one thing I learned the hard way.”