Four-generation family business re-investing in East Ferris

·5 min read

The spirit of Wheeler’s Restaurant remains after the iconic Astorville building was demolished to make way for a new dream, this time driven by the Perron and Ranger families.

“Community support for this business has allowed us to reinvest in our community,” Brigitte Perron-Ranger said, referring to the success of Perron TimberMart, just a stone’s throw away from their new property.

Brigitte, her husband Chris Ranger, her brother Ron, and their parents, Paul-Emile and Lilian Perron, plan to build a new restaurant with a possible office to lease and fuel station.

The move actually completes a family circle connection to the property, she said, noting her grandparents Percy and Fernande Champagne bought it in 1964. It was first built in 1957 by Daniel Rancourt who started Dan’s SuperTest a year later while also running a single bus service for school kids in Astorville.

“My Grandfather built the house behind the restaurant and it was called Percy's Service Station,” Brigitte said, adding this is where they started the East Ferris Bus Lines. My grandmother and the kids worked the restaurant and gas station.” While many different people operated the restaurant under Champagne’s ownership, Brigitte said she mostly remember the restaurant as Wheelers.

“It had a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere where everybody knew your name,” she said, adding it was a gathering place for the community. “It was place to catch up on the events of the town. I remember going there on the weekends, a place where we would meet our friends.”

Announcements of the purchase and photos of the excavator taking down the structure have received positive responses on Facebook. While customers of Wheeler’s embrace past memories they are looking forward to what will come in the future.

“It’s been over-whelming,” Brigitte said. “People are giving us ideas, which is really fun. It makes things exciting for us moving forward knowing it will be supported by the community.”

She said her father has had his eye on the Wheeler’s property for a few years now after a fire closed the restaurant more than a decade ago. Randy Teal had bought the property and started Wheeler's in 1988 and his brother Glen and their father Skip (Allen) joined the venture soon after. It was famous for its homemade burgers and poutine with Cottage Life magazine giving it top honours in a contest. Glen passed away in late 2005, closely followed by Skip and a fire put the restaurant out of commission within a year. Randy's daughters operated the Wheeler Wagon for several summers until the fall of 2019.

"I just want everyone to know I'm in full support of what's happening," Randy said. "It's progress and a move forward for a great community. They are good friends and I wish them all the best."

His family has a long connection to the area with his great grandfather and grandfather having a place on Lake Nosbonsing. By pure coincidence, Randy said he was driving home and saw some of the demolishing in action.

"It was kinda sad to see the building come down," he said, describing how the front wall fell before his eyes. "It came down quick."

While they want to get the new business built and operating sooner than later, Brigitte said the timeline isn’t etched in stone.

“We hope we can move forward as quickly as possible but due to COVID and the supply and demand of building supplies … it’s unpredictable,” she said. “We want to do this right, be smart about it.”

They’d love to be running to meet the pent up demand for people itching to get out of their homes after more than a year of intermittent lockdown.

“We know people will be wanting to go out again once the restrictions are lifted … we’re anxious just as much as everybody else to get it going,” Brigitte said.

The final design is still up in the air, she said, as they’re working with an irregularly shaped lot and looking at future needs that the pandemic has made clear.

They may need to plan for a drive-thru, for example, or a pick-up window in case the business has to operate under pandemic-type restrictions. Another possibility is having an office built into the plan to add lease revenue.

But it’s the dreams of what could be that keep Brigitte up at night.

“It's like a roller coaster ride, you know, I don't sleep at night thinking about all the exciting things that we could bring the community, like having live music,” she said. “I get so excited thinking about it, then I think, ‘OK, I have to reel it in. I have to take my time to really think things through.’”

The Perron family knows a thing or two about business. Her grandfather Philip Perron started Perron’s Building Supplies in 1955 and her father Paul-Emile took it over when he was 19 years old. Lilian joined him in 1986.

“Now my husband and myself and my brother Ron are continuing the family business,” she said, noting it’s now a four-generation business with her children also working there.

The pandemic spurred a hot renovation market as people focused on their homes during the lockdowns, pushing the TimberMart employee levels to double digits this winter when it’s usually just five of them working. Staffing is almost at the same level as the usually busy summer building season, she said.

Combined with recent developments in Astroville, including the new school, senior’s villa and refurbished Community Centre, Brigitte said they have faith in a bright future for the community.

“I'm confident in this community’s support and local businesses,” she said, describing how their customers appreciate the atmosphere and service provided by family-owned businesses. “We own and operate this this place, you’re not talking to a CEO in Toronto. And I think people appreciate that, too."

Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca