Fogo Island – the strongest local living economy you’ve never heard of

Written by Erin Melnychuk, Community Initiatives Manager at Momentum

As a community economic developer, I’m constantly seeking new sources of inspiration. Several years ago, I had my mind blown, when I went to a presentation and heard Zita Cobb, founder of the Shorefast Foundation and Fogo Island Inn, speak.

She was an incredible storyteller; beautifully describing this fascinating place she grew up in, called Fogo Island, in a village called Joe Batt’s Arm. It sounded so foreign to a ‘Big-city Girl’ like me.

This tiny little island off the East Coast of Newfoundland is a fisherman’s community, where families sustained themselves as many generations before them through traditional means. She talked about the impact of the commercialization of the fisheries and the devastating toll on the cod stocks. The moratorium on cod fishing brought this community to its knees.

Zita Cobb, not unlike many Newfoundlanders, left Newfoundland to seek an education and find employment. She had a remarkable career which allowed her to retire early from the innovation and technology sector. She took her money back home and wanted to utilize it to kickstart a sustainable economy on the island. She launched the Shorefast Foundation.

The Shorefast Foundation worked with the community members to identify the assets which existed within their community. They identified that hospitality is a strength of all Newfoundlanders, they eat off the land and sea, and they are makers of beautiful things. They decided to leverage those gifts into the launch of the Fogo Island Inn.

Everything from the architecture to the food, to the décor, is intended to offer a rich cultural experience of the island. The Inn is a social enterprise. Its entire distribution chain is sourced on the island. The food is locally harvested, the furniture and textiles locally made, and it creates many jobs for island residents. All the profits are returned the Shorefast Foundation, which gets reinvested into other local economic development projects. They are currently exploring food securing solutions, co-ops, and the arts.

I was utterly captivated.

Fogo Island sounded like a place trapped in time while simultaneously pursuing incredibly progressive approaches to revitalizing its economy. I instantly knew visiting Fogo Island would become a must-do Bucket List item for me. It took a few years, but I finally made it this summer.

It’s not the easiest place to get to. I flew across the country to St John’s, and then drove another four hours to the Farewell Ferry Terminal just outside of Gander, from where I would finally set foot on the rocky shore of Fogo Island 45 minutes later.

I had clearly understood the magic of the Inn, but what I hadn’t considered was that my experience of the cultural richness would begin in line for the ferry. The ferry was late, and Newfoundland was experiencing a bit of a heat wave, so I opted to leave my car and waited in line outside. It didn’t take long to get to talking to people.

I met a man who grew up on Fogo Island and still lived there. To give you a glimpse into what life is like for Fogo Islanders, he woke up at 5:00 am to catch the ferry so he could take his car into the shop in Gander. His entire day was invested in this one task, which would have taken me one hour to accomplish in Calgary. Nonetheless, he was so excited that this was my first trip to Fogo Island that he invited me to his home for dinner!

He delightfully referred to me as a ‘Come-From-Away’. An invitation like this would never happen in Calgary. Or if it did, it would have rung all kinds of alarm bells in my head. I certainly wouldn’t have such a lovely term for the other person like they do. But on Fogo, this kind of hospitality is entirely natural.

At approximately $1000/night to stay, the Inn was slightly outside of my price range, so I rented a house nearby. This was an incredible ‘salt box’ house nestled in a fishing village which felt like a time capsule from 150 years ago. The owner of the house lived next door. She too was excited to share her culture with me. She stocked the fridge with homemade bread, jams, and juices. There was coffee from the Flat Earth Roasters (People who believe the Earth to be flat, believe Fogo Island to be one of the four corners). Every morning, she would bring over freshly made toutans – a Newfoundland breakfast staple, sort of a cross between a savoury pancake and bread — and rhubarb muffins with more traditional spreads: molasses, homemade marmalade and partridgeberry relish.

When was making the arrangements for my trip, I had tried to book a reservation in the dining room of the Inn. They didn’t exactly laugh at me, but kindly explained that there aren’t many dining options for guests on the island outside of the hotel. So when the hotel is booked solid, so is the dining room.

As a special event, the hotel was doing a crab boil up in another building, freeing up space in the dining room. It was by far the most expensive, but the most incredible dinner I’ve ever experienced.

Starter: Chilled scallops, cod cheeks and mussels, in a goat’s milk jelly with pea shoots.

Appetizer: Lobster with a wheat porridge and quail egg.

Main: Halibut with crushed potatoes and mustard jus. For beverages, first I’d have a dirty martini made with seaweed gin made by the Newfoundland Distillery and then a Quidi Vidi Iceberg beer.

While dining, I was struck by the architecture of the Inn. The dining room is all glass and hangs right out over the shore. All you see is the ocean. You are literally sitting in iceberg alley. The immenseness of the ocean was profound. Next stop, Ireland.

The tour of the hotel made me realize this space was so much more than a high-end hotel serving an elite clientele. It’s also a community centre for the residents. The activities (hiking, yoga, berry picking, bird watching, etc) are free and open to everyone. The hotel offers space to local artisans to sell their crafts. The meeting rooms are convening spaces for community conversations to take place. The Inn is not separate from the daily experience of island residents; rather, quite interconnected.

Zita Cobb described residents of Fogo Island as ‘citizens as economic agents’. This is the most successful example I’ve experienced. There’s something about the isolation of the island and small-scale nature of this community which makes the model work. I’m inspired. I take home with me the challenge of finding assets and systems within my community which can be leveraged to showcase the unique culture of my neighbourhood, while also strengthening its relationships and economic ecosystem.

Take Action:

  • Click here to check out the Fogo Island Inn for yourself.
  • Click here to learn more about the Shorefast Foundation