We bought a run down 1970s motel in Collingwood for $ 1.2 million. It’s now a roadside boutique destination
When John Belknap, co-owner of John and Sons Oyster House in the Financial District, decided to move to Collingwood with his family, he figured he would open a restaurant in the area. Instead, he bought a 13-unit roadside motel. This is how John renovated Penny’s Motel during a pandemic.
–As Andrea Yu said
“I have always spent a lot of time in Collingwood on family vacations. I even worked as a ski instructor at Blue Mountain when I was 16, and my wife, Lauren, owns a family farm in the area. We got married there in 2009 and had three children over the next five years. During this time we often went to Collingwood to stay on the farm. We loved being close to the ski slopes and the lake. It was wonderful to get out of town.
“In 2018 Lauren and I were living in a three bedroom house in Yonge and Eglinton, but with three kids it was getting cramped. It was a vendor’s market and our neighborhood was a construction zone, so we decided to move to Collingwood full time. I knew I could trust my team at John and Sons to run the business, and I would be close enough to come back to town frequently. And I thought I could open a new restaurant in Collingwood. Many chefs have opened spots in the area, such as Fabbrica by Mark McEwan and, later, Union et Côte de Boeuf in Kimberly, and Aki Sushi in Thornbury.
“During this time, I was seeing a renaissance of renovated motels like the Lakeside Motel and the Drake Motor Inn in PEC. That’s when the idea caught on: I could open one in Collingwood. I figured the kind of people who would eat with us would probably stay with us too. I was imagining something with a 1970s exterior and a luxurious, boutique interior. There was nothing like it in Collingwood.
“In July 2018, we started looking for houses in the area. At the same time, I had a commercial real estate agent in the area who was monitoring restaurant and motel properties. I visited a few places, but there was no place that ticked all the boxes. I had looked at Penny’s Motel in Thornbury – a dilapidated roadside inn built in 1974 – but it never went on sale.
“We sold our Toronto home and found a family home in Collingwood in January 2020. It was a new four bedroom construction with an open concept main floor and large backyard. Shortly after, I emailed Penny’s owner to ask if he was interested in selling. The property was in poor condition. It had outdated decor and no landscaping. The walls were swarming with mice. But he had good bones and it was perfect for what I wanted to do: there were only 13 units, which would give it a boutique vibe, and it was only a short walk or city or water bike. I could imagine the guests sitting around a fire while the chefs worked in an outdoor kitchen. The owner called me back the same day. “Make me an offer,” he said.
“Turns out he had planned to list the property on MLS, so I got there at the right time. In February, we agreed to a price of $ 1.17 million, conditional on financing and property inspections. I had 60 days to put it all together.
“And then, of course, the pandemic struck. John and Sons had to slow down temporarily, but I still had money from the sale of our home in Toronto to stay afloat. I also got work with a friend’s landscaping company in Collingwood. I chopped wood, cut grass, shoveled snow. The biggest problem was that the banks weren’t going to lend me money for a hotel business during the pandemic. Fortunately, the seller was understanding. We extended our conditional period by one month, then another, then another. As the pandemic continued into the summer, he was getting more business from people coming to Toronto for the weekend, so he didn’t mind keeping the property for another season. During this time, we had to watch every penny coming in and going out.
“There have been a lot of sleepless nights. I was asking people to invest when we had no vaccines or a clear end to the pandemic. People categorically refused, or they would be interested at first but would back out after giving it more thought. But then the yeses started pouring in. Most of our potential investors were familiar with the area and could see it becoming a four-season destination. By July 2020, I had secured enough funding from 13 private lenders to launch the project. Architect, Drew Sinclair of SvN Architects, and designer, Kristen Gregory of KMG Designs, also participated as investors; they were originally clients I had met at John and Sons. In November we closed the deal with the sellers and the property was ours the following month. We started the renovations right away.
“The vision was to make Penny’s a destination, not a pit stop. Drew and I decided to keep the main architecture and ’70s vibe on the outside, but to completely empty the inside to make it modern and luxurious. There would be crisp white linen sheets and wallpaper with retro walls and touches, like vintage-inspired record players and alarm clocks.
“Outside, there would be a courtyard with a pétanque court, a corn pit and a fireplace with seating. We also have plans to convert the two story terraced house into a small check-in area with an oyster bar. In this same space, there would be an outdoor kitchen with a patio of 50 places. I wanted to keep the motel sign and name because it was so iconic.
“The renovations went pretty well. We’re lucky our contractor bought all the lumber we needed for the patio before lumber prices went up. It was difficult to find artisans to work on the renovation as everyone built properties here during the pandemic, but our investors managed to pull some strings. I have been in contact with tourist companies in the area so we can organize helicopter tours, fly fishing and cider house tours for our clients. And of course there is skiing, snowshoeing and great winter hikes.
“It’s always a little scary before opening a property because you want your guests to have an incredible experience. A few weeks before our launch date, I was standing in front of the building thinking, How is it ever going to open? But it’s still amazing how it all comes together over time. So far, the reception has been overwhelming and the summer nights fill up quickly. I think there is a pent-up demand for people to explore.
“The opening day was Thursday July 1st. Our guests started arriving at 2 p.m. We had about 16 people staying with us, mostly younger couples from Toronto, but also a few locals. It was a busy few hours for people to check in and settle in. Around 7 p.m. I noticed that most of the guests were hanging out in the courtyard and some were going out on bikes for a ride. I got a little emotional at this point. My eyes filled with tears: I saw this vision come to life, something that I had dreamed of years ago. At around 9:30 p.m., I sat around the fireplace and chatted with about 10 of our guests. We were having a drink and they gave me their feedback. One of them said that Penny’s reminded them of a place they had stayed in California and another in Costa Rica. It was good to hear.
“On Sunday, our first guests were all gone. Two couples from Toronto told me they were sad to leave. I loved hearing that, it’s what you want to feel when you are on vacation. I felt like I had done my job. It was a real highlight of the weekend.
“During the pandemic, I was stuck. Now, it’s amazing to get back to work, to have a goal. I am also delighted to be working with the staff again. There are about 12 of us here, and many of them are unemployed waiters. It’s a good atmosphere. Everyone is excited.
“Some people might think I’m crazy I bought a two-star roadside motel during a pandemic. But I also started John and Sons in 2008 when the financial market exploded. The best time to start things is during the worst of times.