PAKENHAM -- As he fires up the evaporator, and the sap simmers to a boil, maple syrup producer Scott Deugo is grateful for a bountiful season in his family’s Pakenham, Ont. sugar bush.

“It’s been a great year. We’ve had some really good weather, cold at night and hot in the day, so the sap’s been flowing really well.”

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the flow of customers to Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush. On the first day of spring, the parking lots, restaurant, and walking trails are empty.

“Yeah, I always say we have two crops at Fulton’s. One is the people, and one is the maple syrup” said owner Shirley Fulton-Deugo.

“The syrup crop is great this year. The people crop’s been a little sparse due to you know what.”

Fulton-Deugo is referring, of course, to COVID-19. When the first Ottawa case was announced on the Thursday before March Break, Fulton’s Pancake House was forced to close its typically-packed restaurant by the following Tuesday. Fulton-Deugo was left with no choice but to let go of some of her 40 dedicated part-time staff members.

“So, we got shut down at one of the highest times of the season. Of course, it has impacted our sales dramatically, but my biggest disappointment is the loss of my staff over the season. They really look forward to it and they need the cash over the season,” said Fulton-Deugo.

Fulton-Deugo said her local suppliers have been extremely kind during the COVID-19 crisis, buying back unused supplies. Other local businesses that are still open have offered to carry a variety of her products.

“This pandemic is like the ice storm. It brings out the best in people.”

Some of those people own and operate the Dairy Distillery in Almonte, producers of Vodkow, a premium vodka made from milk. The distillery is also producing CREAM, a delicious, maple- vodka, cream liqueur this year, made with syrup from Fulton’s. Several events were planned for its launch. It was to be showcased during the popular Maple Run tour in the Almonte and Pakenham area.  But COVID-19 meant those plans had to be cancelled; another blow to Fulton’s bottom line.

“We were all getting ready for the big maple run tour and then all of this isolation changed the game plan, so we weren’t able to do the events we were planning,” said Neal McCarten, the Director of Operations at Dairy Distillery.

The Dairy Distillery’s new plans would include a gesture of kindness and support to Fulton’s. While the events and tour wouldn’t continue, the distillery would remain open to sell its new maple-vodka liqueur. And instead of keeping the profits, it would share them with the Mississippi Mill’s maple syrup matriarch.

“Fulton’s wasn’t’ going to see the amount of people they normally see. We thought, maybe there’s a way to help them out. Omid, my business partner, said let’s take the profits from this and share them with these guys and try to make it easier for them and bring a little sunshine to people,” said McCarten.

“Well, I cried. That’s the kind of kindness that we’re seeing in our business community and it just makes you know you’re going to survive. We don’t have a 30-year relationship, and yet they opened their hearts to us. They’re wonderful people and I hope everyone enjoys their new product.” said Fulton-Deugo.

Despite the pandemic, the stores at the Dairy Distillery in Almonte and Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush in Pakenham are open for business. As well as making vodka and its new maple cream product, the distillery is producing a surface and hand-sanitizer for the community during COVID-19.

The shelves at Fulton’s are fully stocked with maple products. Shoppers can visit the property, take a walk on the trails, and shop, if they choose, without going into the store.

“Staff will bring an iPad to your car window which displays product pictures. You can look at it and not touch. We also have trays with a variety of items on them that we can bring outside, so you can see what we have to offer, and we have a hands-free pin pad to enable you to pay,” said Fulton-Deugo.

“We’re calling it ‘drive by shopping.’ We will then pack your order for you and we can take it to your car, so there’s no need to come into our buildings at all. Take a country drive. It’s beautiful out here and it might help people with cabin fever.”

Despite the economic hardships resulting from COVID-19, Fulton-Deugo remains optimistic about her business and the future, bolstered by the benevolence of people who care.

“We’ve been here since 1840. I took over from my parents in 1980. I went through the high interest rates of the eighties, I went through hardly any production in the eighties, then I went through the ice storm, and now this. So, we’ve always survived, and we will again. We are resilient and tough, and we have support of wonderful people.”