One of the trade-offs of country life is having to drive to go anywhere, and do almost anything: school, medical appointments, jobs and groceries. For residents just west and north of Thunder Bay, the drives may be noticeably shorter now, and that is just what Jesica McNabb and co-owners of Dawson General Store hope to achieve.
“We’re aiming to be the place where what you need is just down the road,” she says. “It’s just so that you don’t have to go into the city for everything.”
Situated on the corner of Dawson Road (Highway 102) and Mapleward Road, the busy establishment was known for many years as Leppanen’s Store, even after the Leppanen family had sold the business decades ago. Though the designation “EST. 2021” on the highway side of the building seems to speak of an ultra-modern convenience store, McNabb and company are aiming for a mix of modern and nostalgic—and much more.
“We want to bring back the feel of an old general store,” she says.
A quick look around the spacious interior certainly gives that impression. In one corner is the basic hardware section across from a basic automotive section. Throughout the store shelving, you can find pretty much whatever you might expect in a country store: bread, milk, assorted candy, chips, soft drinks and frozen treats. But a closer look reveals a mini grocery market, with fresh produce (“Comes in Wednesday and Saturday”), frozen meats, fresh eggs and milk, and a raft of baked goods. An even closer look reveals the Dawson General Store’s deeper nature: the customer is literally surrounded by locally-produced goods.
“We have more than 36 local vendors and five different bakeries that we feature here,” says McNabb. “A lot of small local companies had a hard time over the last year. We want to help our local community.”
Ironically, the same crisis that hit local small concerns led ultimately to the creation of the Dawson General Store. Case in point: McNabb had owned a women’s clothing store in Thunder Bay called Hey Sailor!, while holding down a job with Air Canada—until Covid-19.
In 2020, McNabb’s father-in-law, Mike McNabb Sr., noticed that the old Leppanen’s property had been for sale for some time. A series of family conferences including McNabb, her husband Mike Jr., and sister-in-law Nancy Freeborn, led to acquiring the property.
“We spent three weeks in January 2021 renovating the interior of the store,” McNabb recalls. “It was a complete interior change. We opened on February 18.”
The current ownership includes McNabbs Senior and Junior, the latter having trained as a chef and who is now kitchen manager, general manager McNabb, as well as Freeborn, who functions as general kitchen helper. All of them are putting in long days, seven days a week, on the concern.
“It’s nice to work these hours when you have your family here,” McNabb says. “We have a staff of 24, but could probably employ over 30. And this is very important to us: we pay a living wage to our employees, not minimum wage.”
“They don’t need to have a second job to live,” she adds. “We set a high standard for these kids working here, so they won’t accept shabby treatment from future employers. We want them to be happy working here.”
McNabb’s eye on the future extends to the store’s operation as well.
“We’re a Purolator Depot, and we hope to add on to the store for a local artisan’s section. And we would love to get a permit to sell wine and beer—someday,” she says.
More information on the store can be found at: facebook.com/dawsongeneralstore.