Economic Nutrition on Canada’s Eastern Shores
Fogo Island Inn; A Social Business Paradise
Unlike any other hotel or inn in North America, Fogo Island Inn was founded with a social, cultural and economic purpose in mind. It’s founder and innkeeper is Zita Cobb, a former tech executive and Fogo Island local whose end game was built around bringing cultural and economic resilience back to the people of Fogo Island. This soulful mandate resulted in a unique travel experience for guests worldwide.
Before there was a prosperous Inn, there was an island community in economic crisis, an ocean missing its cod supply, and tenacious locals who had enough. This is their story.
The Arctic has polar bears, British Columbia has grizzlies and salmon, and Newfoundland and Labrador have Atlantic cod. For five-hundred years, Canada’s easternmost province thrived due to its rich cod-filled waters. With the industrialization of the fishery, fishermen from around the globe flocked to the Atlantic waters surrounding Fogo Island, reeling in mass amounts of this protein-filled fish. By the 1960’s the cod was dwindling due to heavy-handed international fishing practices, and local, inshore fishermen needed to go farther out to sea for a chance to catch a fraction of what they once caught. Many inshore fishermen—such as those on Fogo Island—couldn’t keep up with the changing technology required for this type of fishing, and left their rural island communities for the mainland.
By the early 1990’s, the situation with the cod stocks was so dire that the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on Newfoundland’s cod fisheries. Though it was intended to be a temporary two-year restriction, it was too late. The damage was done, tens of thousands from various rural communities (including Fogo Island) lost their jobs.
The cod had been fished out, and communities such as Fogo Island had been left on the brink of extinction.
By the early 2000’s, the population of Fogo Island dropped from 5,000 to 2,500, and there was no immediate recourse. There was however, one determined local who vowed to turn it all around.
Zita Cobb grew up on Fogo Island and knows the place and its people intimately. Zita was raised alongside six brothers in a modest home without running water or electricity, nestled in the small community of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island. Her father was a fisherman, but couldn’t keep up with the changes set in place by industrial fishing giants, and his fishing career ended in the late 1960’s. By 1975, when Zita graduated high school, the family home was nailed shut, and Zita’s parents along with the two youngest of their seven children moved to the mainland.
Zita put herself through university at Carleton in Ottawa, studying business to understand how this destruction could happen to her community.
After a successful career in the tech industry, Zita retired at 43. Fittingly, she decided to take her earnings, education and experience back to the island where it all began.
Zita returned home and founded Shorefast, a registered Canadian charity. A shorefast is a line that secures a vessel or cod-trap to the shore, but for Zita it is a metaphor for securing a community to its place in the world. Shorefast’s guiding principle is building cultural and economic resiliency on Fogo Island. One key step in economic resiliency? Bringing back jobs to the people of Fogo Island.
Using her own funds, private investments and government grants, Zita hired local Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders to bring her vision of a coastal Inn to life. With guidance, adept workers re-purposed their skills and talents to build the singular structure. Boat builders became furniture designers, knowing intimately the curves of juniper and spruce trees. The same shapes that formed their punt boats inspired chairs, loveseats and bed frames. Former fishermen became expert guides for visitors and guests of the island, knowing the swells of the tide, the currents and all seven of the island’s seasons.
Each of the Island’s seven seasons offers its own unique draw for visitors, from berry picking season in the early fall to iceberg season from mid-May to June and a wild winter adventure season in the year’s strongest months. One of the four corners of the earth (as stated by the Flat Earth Society), Fogo Island is magical, remote and captivating.
Ultimately nearly all the activities at the Inn involve the local people, and support anyone from talented artisans and skilled fishermen to local guides hosting traditional boil-ups. While the activities at the Inn are optional, the lasting effect upon visiting the Fogo Island Inn is all but guaranteed.
There is evidence of the Island’s past in everything from the furniture to the textiles to the foraged food available in the award-winning dining room. Describing itself as ‘Radically contemporary and resolutely traditional’, the Fogo Island Inn incorporates contemporary design and amenities with deep-rooted tradition. The Inn itself was built loosely in the size of a ship, and the stilts it rests upon pay homage to traditional fishing stages. The architect, Todd Saunders, will be in residence on May 18 for the May long weekend.
The punt chairs take the same structural shape as the age-old punt boats, used by fishermen for centuries. Hand-sewn quilts adorn each bed at the Inn, and are constructed using a variety of vintage fabrics, each telling their own story. The goal of finding ‘new ways with old things’ was achieved by all parties involved, using traditional approaches and materials at every turn.
Today the Inn is staffed primarily by Fogo Islanders, and through Shorefast, the charity, Fogo Islanders are its beneficial owners. All proceeds from the Inn go back into the community where it all began. There is no private gain.
Zita’s vision has become reality, and the Inn has succeeded in boosting the island’s economy and strengthening its culture. Zita’s greater message to the world is that what can happen on a small island can happen across the globe.
“Maybe a small island is a good proxy for a small planet.” – Zita Cobb
Zita was recently awarded the Order of Canada (the country’s top honor) for her dedication to rural development.
Through its social businesses like the Fogo Island Inn, Shorefast pioneered the concept of ‘economic nutrition labels’ which disclose where the money spent on a product or service goes.
Similar to a nutrition label for food found in the grocery store, Shorefast and Fogo Island Inn aim to inspire change and more thoughtful spending with the launch of their transparent model.
Economic nutrition labels can be found on most items in the Fogo Island Shop, and for stays at the Fogo Island Inn (see below).
Shorefast runs a diverse set of initiatives on Fogo Island, including the Fogo Island Arts artist-in-residence program, as well a micro-lending Business Assistance Fund. Shorefast has also founded the New Ocean Ethic, a series of initiatives aimed at creating ‘a higher fidelity relationship with our oceans’.
Shorefast’s social businesses include the Fogo Island Shop, featuring handcrafted wooden furniture and textiles, and Fogo Island Fish, providing hand-lined cod to fine-dining restaurants on the mainland. Learn more about Shorefast’s initiatives here.
Our Founder and President Marc Telio met Zita Cobb in Morocco five years ago and was struck by her mission. The pair have traveled together to Africa, Jamaica, Newfoundland and even Las Vegas, developing a meaningful friendship based on sharing, inspiration and mutual industry respect.
The good news?
After all this, the cod are just beginning to come back.
We would be delighted to introduce you to the magic of Newfoundland. Read more about our experience featuring the Fogo Island Inn here.
Contact Our Travel Planners here.