The hosts of The Iron Kettle Bed & Breakfast located in charming small town Comber, Ontario, in Canada’s most Southerly region of Windsor Essex County don’t fit the typical B & B owner age demographic. Regardless, the combination of the region’s diverse attractions, small town smiles, history of the building, and the owner’s skills and experience in the hospitality and culinary industry has attracted business travelers and tourists from around the world.
Initially, guests will notice the hosts are an energetic young couple. “As members of the Canada South Bed & Breakfast Association we are easily half the age of the typical retired and semi-retired owners around here,” says Chef Benjamin Leblanc who co-owns the B&B with his wife Ginette Tremblay. Although these owners are younger than the typical B&B operators the quality of service is first class all the way.
Before taking ownership of the Iron Kettle in April of 2014, Leblanc and Tremblay, stayed at the B&B as guests of the previous owners. “We stayed here for our wedding night and fell in love with the place. A couple of weeks later we found out it was for sale,” explains Leblanc. The young couple’s passion for the Iron Kettle wasn’t the only reason they decided to make an offer on the business.
Most of Tremblay’s family lives in the area. In fact, “her family is very well known around here, it’s a very large family, her ancestors helped establish Windsor and Detroit,” says Leblanc. “When you start a business you need family support and they have been helping us since day one.” The couple plan to have children and raise them at The Iron Kettle where they live in private quarters.
So having family close by to help out with and be a part of the children’s lives was an important part of their decision to take over the Iron Kettle. This differentiates them from older B&B owners whose children are grown and moved out of the home. The Iron Kettle was the perfect opportunity for them to settle down.
“Tired of moving around, we were happy to find this beautiful area to set up a business, a home, and start a family,” says Leblanc.
The couple spent several years travelling across Canada and Europe. Leblanc’s experience spans continents, fine European Michelin Star restaurants, prestigious world hotels, and even an appearance on Food Network Canada’s hit T.V. show Chopped Canada (to be aired May 30, 2015).
In Paris, Leblanc trained at Michelin Star restaurant Le Violon D’ingres owned by Chef Christian Constant (a member of the jury on France’s T.V. version of Top Chef). “I expected to be put in a corner peeling carots because it was an unpaid placement,” said Leblanc. “I was working hard and they noticed my passion so I actually was able to do lots of butchery, there were different game meats that we don’t get to see here in Canada. Farmers would bring animals to the restaurant, hunters would bring wild game, we would get wild mushrooms, and lots of good stuff.”
Leblanc spent just over a year in Geneva, Switzerland, at Michelin Star restaurant, Il Lago, inside the Four Seasons Hotel (one of the most expensive hotels in the world). Leblanc explains, “the hotel was small, only about 100 rooms but most of them were over $1000 a night, and there was one room that was $15,000 a night.” During this time Leblanc was taking part in a restaurant management program. “I spent time in food and beverage, served in the restaurant, and supervised room service. So I dealt with clients, made food deliveries to the rooms, and co-ordinated all of that as part of my responsibilities.”
In Toronto, as sous chef, Leblanc managed a kitchen of 25 cooks at Earl’s Restaurant which generates $14 million dollars a year in revenue. Eventually Leblanc took the position of Executive Chef at The Grand Luxe Event Boutique. During 2014, while Leblanc managed 25 cooks, The Grand Luxe was voted The Best Ball Room in Toronto. “The Grand Luxe was a different experience, a banquet and catering type of setting, it was portion controlled, cost controlled, and a great way to understand how to run a business,” states Leblanc.
This experience has played a major role in helping the new hosts of The Iron Kettle offer a first class bed and breakfast. In addition, guests also get to enjoy amazing meals prepared by an incredible chef. The cuisine, and the chef behind it, is another reason the Iron Kettle Bed and Breakfast experience is truly memorable.
Guests enjoy breakfast in a cozy dining space, formerly a large enclosed porch, that overlooks the property through its many large windows. “Typically, for breakfast I set up continental fare with items like fresh croissants, chocolate croissants, coffee, tea, juice, fresh fruits, and yogurt”, says Leblanc. “When people wake up they can grab a plate and eat right away, and at the same time I’ll whip up an omelette or something else, if i can get farm fresh eggs for that morning then I’ll do poached eggs to highlight the quality of this area’s bountiful fresh local foods. I mix it up because i hate cooking the same thing every day.” On nice days guests often eat their breakfast on the patio just outside the indoor dining space. From these areas people get a relaxing view of the property’s waterfall, hot tub, in ground pool, colourful birds, and the eye catching signature road side over-sized black iron kettle.
In addition to breakfast guests who arrive in the evening or staying for several nights can arrange for Chef Leblanc to prepare one of his fantastic dinners. Usually, Bed and Breakfasts are responsible for providing a place to stay and breakfast but “we often set up a dinner with for our guests as part of package deals,” says Leblanc.
Throughout the year foodies can enjoy a dining experience at the Iron Kettle without having to spend the night as guests. A few times a year the sitting area where guests usually mingle is transformed into an extended dining room so special occasion dinners can be served. Doors open to the public and reservations can be booked. For example, special New Year’s and Valentine’s Day dinners were served earlier this year. In addition, if the dining room and Chef Leblanc are available the Iron Kettle can be booked for an onsite dinner party.
For larger groups or special events the Iron Kettle offers off site catering. “We do a lot of weddings, especially at community halls, we have catered at people’s homes for funerals, baptisms, bridal showers, baby showers, wedding rehearsal dinners, and after wedding brunches,” states Leblanc. “Weddings are big part of our business especially during the summer.” Private dinners at peoples’ homes around the holidays are also popular. “For Easter we catered a fish fry on Good Friday and Easter dinners on the Saturday and Sunday.”
Located just on the outskirts of EPIC Wine Country, The Iron Kettle takes pride in pairing their meals with local wine. “I like serving local wine, not to sell it, but to let our guests know there is an opportunity to go out to the wineries as tourists,” says Leblanc. Wines from Pelee Island Winery, Viewpoint Estate Winery, and Colchester Ridge Estate Winery were on display in the dining area during our interview. “We will get whatever wine our clients would like. I usually serve CREW because I really like their wine and I love the white wine from Oxley. The people at these places are so nice to deal with too.”
A big part of why people come to Windsor Essex County is to tour the wineries. “We often arrange wine tours for our guests, it’s pretty good because the wineries’ success equals our success,” says Leblanc. “The closest wineries are Mastronardi and Aleksander (15-20 mins away), often people drive into town from places like Toronto to visit over the weekend. Because we are just 1km off the 401 and just on the outskirts of EPIC wine country, they’ll stop here on the Friday night, make their way to the wineries the next day, and stay somewhere else like Amherstburg the next night.”
“We are in close contact with tour companies like WE Trolley and Grape Vine Tours. For example, we have set up tours with WE Trolley where our B&B is a starting point, so guests will stay the night and head out on the trolley in the morning.”
While wine lovers stay at the Iron Kettle for Lake Erie North Shore’s scenic wine route others come simply because of this bed and breakfast’s beautiful historic building. “People come from all over the world just to stay in this building,” explains Leblanc. “I didn’t build it but I sit here and I’m wowed by it just as much as anyone else.”
The Victorian style home (Iron Kettle) in Comber, Ontario was built in 1876 by Duncan McCallister resembling those in a small town in Northern Ireland also called Comber. McCallister, originally from Woodstock, Ontario, moved to Comber in the late 1800s. “He was the jack of all trades,” states Leblanc. “He was justice of the peace, operated the town’s post office, general store, and was a master breeder of short horn cattle. He had 9 kids and this was his home built from bricks obtained from a tile yard right behind us, it is now a conservation area.” Over the years the building was many different businesses. Guests marvel at the building and enjoy hearing their hosts tell its history.
While researching previous owners of the building Leblanc discovered McAllister owned it for about 50 years. More recently, well known families in Comber that owned the building include the Robinsons and Tozers. “It’s fun to research a historical building like this,” states Leblanc. “The names of different families that are still very much present in Comber keep coming up. It’s very cool because I was able to pull up some of the names of kids that grew up in this house.”
Modernizing this historic home and maintaining it over the years has worked out well. Leblanc says, “you can change things around if you want because it’s not an officially designated heritage building like we see in Walkerville, where you’re sometimes limited to what you can do with those type of buildings. You can’t paint, you can’t do certain things to the outside, we’re lucky that this building is in good shape.”
“Many people have said there were a lot of homes around Comber like the Iron Kettle. A lady came in and said oh my aunt used to have a house like this. When I ask people with similar stories, where because I would like to see it, they usually say it’s been torn down. So there aren’t too many that are this old, well kept, or modernized left around here and that’s too bad. We have modern plumbing, modern electrical, two furnaces, and two air conditioners. We’re fortunate to have a good standing building.”
“The floors, stair case, window trims, doors, and all the wood is original,” explains Leblanc. The building was restored to its original state and converted into a B&B in 1997 by Kathy Markham. Markham ran the B&B and her travel agency out of this location until Leblanc and Tremblay took over on April 16, 2014.
The character of the Iron Kettle is accented by the exposed brick walls, “it even shows in the kitchen, the house is brick through and through,” says Leblanc. Additionally, the charming decor also adds to the Iron Kettle’s character. Leblanc gives full credit to his wife Ginette for the distinctive decor and fully appreciates all the support she gives him. Leblanc explains, “a big part of the business is my wife, she does a lot to support me, we work hand in hand. The charm of this place has nothing to do with me but everything to do with Ginette. She takes care of everything like the flowers and everything that’s cute. She does a lot of the creative things and I do a lot of the functional things, we work very well together.”
The Iron Kettle, originally built to accommodate McCallister’s very large family, offers 5 bedrooms with private washrooms and showers. The intimate rooms offer queen size beds with soft duvets and new Sealy Posturepedic mattresses. Each room offers guests their own T.V. and WIFI Internet access.
Guests and owners can mingle and socialize in the home’s three cozy common spaces. The reading room at the front of the house is often used by business travelers as a study. “We have business people come set up in here and brides love taking photos in here,” says Leblanc. Guests will also enjoy relaxing in the lounge area’s comfy leather couch and wicker chair. Of course the dining room is another favourite common space for guests who rave about Chef Leblanc’s diverse culinary creations.
The 2 Acre property boasts amenities like an in ground swimming pool, hot tub, pond with waterfall, a patio complete with fire pit to enjoy sunsets while sipping on a glass of wine. In addition, guests will enjoy the heritage and small town charm of Comber, Ontario. “The Train Station in Comber, a designated heritage building, was the epicentre of the region because the first settlers cleared trees so they could farm, and there were six railroad tracks, we had mills for wood, and a hotel with 45 rooms, there’s lots of history behind it,” explains Leblanc.
Today, because we are easily accessible right off the 401, business clientele is big for us. We’re at the cross roads of Chatham, Leamington, and Windsor. Some business clientele have stayed for a week but that’s not too common. Sometimes people come to the area on a monthly basis and will stay for 3 or 4 days once a month.”
The Windsor Essex Pelee Island region’s diverse attractions and natural beauty draws in not only business travelers but those looking for amazing experiences. The region is known for so much from birding, wineries, and golfing to gaming entertainment, top ranked festivals, heritage and cultural attractions. People come to enjoy the region and when they stay at The Iron Kettle Bed and Breakfast the memorable experiences they have here are even better.
People who choose to stay at a bed and breakfast seek more than a place to sleep for the night, they’re looking for a memorable experience. Leblanc says, “the main difference between a B&B and hotel is that you’re in someone’s home. We actually live on the premises. Someone who bar hops is not going to stay at a B&B (typically they’re looking for a hotel to crash at for the night), people like birders, wine enthusiasts, culinary tourists, or travelers seeking to experience different places, are who typically stay with us. They want to interact with local residents and see how they live; the best way to do that is to stay with the owners of a B&B because you are actually staying in their home.”
“But at the same time if they aren’t looking for an experience, if they just want a place to sleep and a breakfast (maybe their truck broke down on the 401, or they’re in the area to attend a wedding) we can accommodate them too. We do get guests like that because there isn’t really a hotel in Comber.”
“People remember the different B&B’s they’ve been too because of the experiences, the people they’ve met there, the owners they are serviced by, the unique building, or something about the B&B usually stands out in their minds.”
The Iron Kettle Bed & Breakfast difference offers locals on a stay-cation and visitors to the area a one of a kind memorable experience that will last a life-time.