The Champagne has flowed, the punch has been spilled, and now it’s time to face the coldest, cruellest month of the year, along with the equally dreaded concept known as new year’s resolutions. But what if you actually followed through on those “life-changing” promises you made to yourself? All this week, we’ll look at individuals who made total career and lifestyle changes. Today, Nathalie Atkinson on an executive who swapped marketing charts for strawberry tarts.
For some people, it’s the click of fresh new year digits that inspires a complete life assessment and change. For marketing executive Kelly Mansell, it was a milestone birthday that spurred a move 2,987 kilometres out of her comfort zone.
Last year Mansell and husband Mark McGann, a set decorator in the film industry, pulled up stakes from their downtown Toronto lifestyle and moved to St. John’s, N.L. “We both turned 50 and both said to each other, ‘OK, what are we going to do with this decade?’ ” Mansell recalls. “We actually said those words.”
What they did was open the retro-style bakery café Rocket in a heritage building on St. John’s Water Street. On Feb. 1, 2011, the couple got the keys to the building and while McGann started the renovations (with the pair’s three other business partners), Mansell began a regular St. John’s-Toronto commute. At the end of the school year and after leasing their Toronto home, by July, the whole family had relocated.
“We didn’t leave Toronto and everything there — we came to something, to Newfoundland,” Mansell says, underscoring the difference inherent in that choice. “Everyone looked as us like we had two heads. Then, they would get this faraway look in their eye and realize, ‘Oh yeah, Newfoundland …’ ”
“We had no connection to Newfoundland but there was this interesting opportunity,” she continues, describing how acquaintances in St. John’s suggested the building. “Newfoundlanders are really shocked by that because Newfoundlanders always come home — it’s all about coming back here. But Mark’s parents are in Victoria, mine are in Toronto. I have a cousin in Clarenville but you know,” she adds, “we only got to know one another here.”
As a marketing and publicity executive, Mansell had years of tourism PR under her belt for clients such as the Bahamas and Holiday Inn, “so [hospitality] is not totally foreign to me.” And in the past few years, she was an account director for Pepsi, an experience that helped her think of marketing strategies for the bakery. Not that anything prepared her for the steep flour-and-yeast learning curve, though. “I had to learn about bubbles in baguettes, which croissant was which, and what good croissants look like when you tear them open,” she says with a laugh.
Mansell had also visited Newfoundland many times before, so it wasn’t a total blind move. Years of selling Comrags (the Toronto women’s clothing label in which she is an investor) also introduced her to local boutiques and, later, Pepsi’s Junos/Refresh projects made her familiar with the city.
“It was a risk and it’s so far paid off,” Mansell says, but admits that sons Jesse, 14, and Callum, 12, have had a difficult time. “But they’re coming around, I think,” she adds, mentioning that both are involved in hockey, which has helped meet people and ease the transition.
“We were ripping out from the bosom of their peer group and that was very hard for them and, as a result, it was very hard for us. I have to take my hat off to them for struggling,” she says. “Luckily, [they have] Rocket and a place they can come at lunch, or bring their friends down and have a cupcake or a brownie.”
“We thought of acquiring a lifestyle that was to spend more time with the boys,” Mansell says. “That was our goal — to enjoy what years we have left with them. They’re teenagers and how much more time are we going to have with them that they want to spend with us?”
These days, much of the family’s time is spent at the bakery, where Mansell arrives at 7 a.m. to spend the morning behind the counter dispensing pains au chocolat, then sandwiches during the lunch rush.
Since opening, Rocket has become a bustling but cozy community hub, from the French-influenced bakery offerings to the vintage building’s upstairs level, an active music and event space that has hosted such acts as The Once and the Weakerthans. There is also a catering division and a little grocery section, and Rocket just got a restaurant licence, so in the new year, there will also be a bar (“once I get my head around it, operationally,” Mansell says).
“There are dramas, don’t get me wrong, from day one,” Mansell says. “It’s a little bit As the Rocket Turns. It really should be, sometimes, a reality show. But life is the choices that you make, the is it yes or no. Making the decision to come here, we just took a breath and stepped off.”