As the pandemic subsides, restaurant owner Lefroy is delighted to be back offering a new menu of locally sourced food and drink, with weekly live entertainment
Jennifer McKnight has owned the Harbor House Grill in Lefroy for a decade, attracting locals as well as customers from the boating community.
Located inside the Lefroy Harbor complex, the restaurant offers calming lake views, lively entertainment, and locally sourced food and drink.
But it wasn’t always a âhot spot,â says McKnight.
When she first expressed interest in buying the Harbor House Grill almost 10 years ago, she was met with skepticism.
âWe have been told this place for years is not good,â she said. “It looked like a bad cafeteria.”
But she had a good idea of ââthe place and was able to prove that the naysayers were wrong.
McKnight comes from a vast culinary background, having worked in many restaurants over the years, from mom and pop stores to fine dining.
She grew up in Wasaga Beach and started in the industry at just 12, working as a dishwasher, with the dream of one day becoming a chef.
She had her own fine dining restaurant in Collingwood, but was forced to close after the 2008 recession, which brought her to Lefroy.
Before investing in the Harbor House Grill, she worked at the nearby restaurant in Monto Reno Marina and worked hard to develop her clientele.
“We drove him to madness, where I had to sleep in a boat,” she said. “It went so well, it was awesome, it was awesome.”
Eventually, she took over the Harbor House Grill just down the road and ended up owning both restaurants for two years as well as a neighborhood ice cream parlor.
Harbor House Grill’s business was growing so rapidly that she decided to sell the restaurant and ice cream shop Monto Reno to focus on one restaurant.
âHe’s grown up every year since,â she noted.
It was only after the pandemic and the recent reopening of the economy that McKnight changed his mind about his job.
âWith COVID, it’s a monster,â she said.
It usually closes in winter, but due to COVID it has decided to stay open this year. In January and February, she mailed 10,000 flyers to area residents advertising her take-out menu and had good response from customers.
âThey have supported us and are coming to see us for the first time,â she noted.
She’s grateful that she was able to adapt to online ordering throughout the pandemic in order to serve customers and says she’s sorry for some mom-and-pop stores that couldn’t.
âIf I didn’t adjust to the online part, I don’t know if I would still be there,â she said.
She had hired her staff at Harbor House Grill in April, but wasn’t sure when she might reopen for dinner.
âIt’s like you’re on a starting line and trying to be organized and prepared, then you’re good to go, then you have to go back,â she said.
In April the restaurant was doing so badly commercially, McKnight was ready to go out of business, but knowing summer was upon us, she persevered and stayed open.
Once restaurants were finally allowed to reopen for patio dining, it went from a staff of less than 10 to 40 in less than a week.
It was an overwhelming reopening, training for staff who were working for the first time, and serving clients who had been locked in over the past year.
âIt was in the first three weeks of opening, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to do this anymore,â she admitted.
Not only did customers expect exceptional service at a time when staff were still new and training, but food suppliers faced shortages, forcing McKnight to seek other options to fill orders.
âIt’s so hard for the economy to go from zero to openness,â she said.
To help cope with shortages, she began sourcing menu ingredients from local businesses.
âThis is something that I have wanted to do for years,â she said, adding that the pandemic had forced her to do it. â95% of the menu is locally sourced. “
One of McKnight’s favorite parts of her job is the connections she makes with her staff.
âIt’s fulfilling,â she said. “The biggest thing I got out of all of this is over the years seeing the young staff, this is their first job, seeing them very well later in life.”
She says former staff members often contact her to thank her for the experience they’ve gained working at the restaurant.
âIt brings me butterflies,â she said.
It was this feeling that kept her going after a long and hard pandemic containment.
âI think it made me a better businessman, if I can get over that I can get over anything,â she said.
Despite a few difficult years, including the passing of her father earlier this year, McKnight is happy to be back stronger than ever, returning to a certain sense of normalcy with dining on the patio and indoors, and weekly entertainment.
On Friday August 6, rock and country band Tattoos N ‘Whiskey will perform, with music from their latest album “To waste my time”.
Harbor House Grill is located inside Lefroy Marina at 727 Harbor St., Lefroy. It is open to the public seven days a week at 11:30 a.m. for lunch and dinner, and 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and on long weekend Mondays for breakfast.
To view their menu and see their entertainment program, visit their Facebook page here.