SHERBROOKE — For what seems like an era, Beanie’s Bistro has anchored Sherbrooke’s tiny downtown with its homey charm, bespoke fare and constant conviviality, thanks to its owners. Now, after 10 years happily moored to their welcome mat, Max MacDonald and Barbara Cameron are moving on.
“It’s time,” 72-year-old Max says bittersweetly about leaving their centre of everything in the middle of one of the Eastern Shore’s most beautiful communities. Since 2013, when they opened the establishment in this historic village, “We’ve just loved the whole package, getting together and breaking bread with our friends and neighbours.”
But, he says, “The restaurant business is pretty physical. Barb and I both intend to keep active; just not at this pace.”
Not that Beanie’s is going anywhere. Nearby Wine Harbour resident Tammie Vautour — who has plenty of hospitality experience — has bought the place. She’s keeping the name, she says, “to continue on with what Barbara and Max have grown. Beanie’s has meant so much to so many people here.”
She’s right about that. It was on the faces of dozens of people who gathered at Beanie’s last week to say bon voyage to Max and Barbara. It was in the words of the well-wishers who crowded social media with their fond farewells.
“The little corner of Sherbrooke you’ve created has brought much happiness and deliciousness to everyone who came through the doors,” said one.
“The community was so lucky to have you guys for the last 10 years,” said another.
“Beanie’s is not just a restaurant,” proclaimed still another, speaking for many.
The original ‘Beanie’ wasn’t a restaurant at all. Says Max: “She was my grandmother, Rubina Reid of Port Hilford, who married a McConnell. Her young niece couldn’t say ‘Rubina’, so it came out ‘Beanie.’ It just stuck… Our family has been here since the early 1800s. We have a property here and walking on that land is just a joy and privilege.”
Still, opening a restaurant in the village next to his ancestral property wasn’t the obvious choice for MacDonald — who, along with Barbara, actually hails from Cape Breton — when he retired from the music industry. “I left as one of the founders of Celtic Colours International Festival and wanted to spend more time here,” he says. “And then it was like, ‘Okay, what are you going to do?’”
Fortunately, he says, Barbara had a lot of experience in the restaurant business. “I had zero,” he laughs. “I figured I’d just be the friendly host and treat it like a show. So, that’s what I did. You know, I’m just a song and dance man who serves coffee.”
In short order, they transformed the little coffee shop they’d purchased into a bonafide restaurant that, thanks to Barbara’s culinary skills, quickly earned a reputation for delicious and distinctive food. Says Max: “That was 26 seats indoors and another 14 or so outdoors in the summertime. We did breakfast and lunch here, five days a week. The ingredients we used were locally sourced as much as possible. We didn’t deep fry, so we were also kind of a heathy alternative… Every Monday, Barbara liked to make something really interesting. It might have been Thai or Mexican. It could have been anything.”
Ten years in business may have honed their appreciation for a variety appetites, but, Max says, they never were in it to cater to the tourist trade. “Tourism? That’s great, but it was a bonus. We wanted to create a place that primarily served the local community — something that was a gathering place for people to come in and share their stories with one another.”
That emphasis was never clearer — or more important to locals — than during Covid. “The pandemic just killed restaurants that depended on tourism,” Max says. “We, on the other hand, were able to dance and shift and be agile because the community wanted us to survive. So, we said, “You know, we can’t open the doors, but we can create a take-out window, if you guys are interested.” And they said, ‘Yeah, we’re interested.’ So, they supported us all through Covid; whereas, if we were in the tourist business, we would have been dead in the water.”
That may be the last great takeaway from Beanie’s Bistro as Max and Barbara prepare for their next adventure.
“In the end, this restaurant is the community’s,” he says.
And their future?
“We’ll be spending more time in Cape Breton in the summers. We have five young grandchildren there, in the Sydney area. We’re also in the process of making the seasonal house that we built here a four-season place. Our address will be in Port Hilford.”
And, why not? One era ends and another begins. But this, after all, is still Max and Barbara’s home. Beanie wouldn’t have it any other way.