Br. Sylvain-Jacques packages a cake for sale at l'Abbaye Val Notre-Dame.

CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | RON STANG

Br. Sylvain-Jacques packages a cake for sale at l'Abbaye Val Notre-Dame.

March 31, 2014
RON STANG
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

These are not your parents' Trappist monks.

The Quebec Trappists, famed for their Oka cheese, have moved to a beautiful new monastery, installed state-of-the-art food production equipment and will be unveiling a contemporary website to showcase the dozens of their fine products, which largely used to be available only along the old Montreal-Ottawa Highway in the town of Oka, Quebec.

The two dozen Trappists (they're actually Cistercians but commonly referred to as Trappists) had lived on the 270-hectare Oka site since the 1890s but "it was way too big," said the order's new marketing director, Martin Plante.

Instead of Oka, now the monks reside in the tranquil hills of Saint-Jean-de-Matha, "cottage country" about an hour and a half north of Montreal and famous for its strongman Louis Cyr of more than a century ago.

CUSTOMERS WIZZ BY

The problem, however, is that the monastery is off the beaten track. And while there's a store, the building is two kilometres off the highway "so people can pass by and literally not know there's a monastery there," Plante said.

That compares to the crowds that would flock to the old Oka store, as many as 120,000 a year. While the money from the sale of the Oka property went to build the beautiful new Val Notre-Dame Abbey, the monks – more than half now over the age of 80 – depend on food sales for their regular income.

The Trappists are most famous for their Oka cheese, known for its distinct flavour and aroma. The monks have been making the cheese since the late 1800s. The Lord likely will forgive the illusion but in fact the monks sold the cheese-making rights to Quebec's giant Agropur Dairy back in the 1970s.

That's okay, Plante said, a mischievous tone in his voice.

Chocolatier Br. Jean-Marc pours his candy at l'Abbaye Val Notre-Dame.

CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | RON STANG

Chocolatier Br. Jean-Marc pours his candy at l'Abbaye Val Notre-Dame.

"People still come to the store and say, 'Wow, we want to buy it here because it's way better than what we find in the supermarkets.' But the secret's out – it's the same cheese!"

Nevertheless, the monks put in day-long labour in their new 360-square-metre production building on a variety of foodstuffs, from jams and jellies, peanut butter, to cakes, fruit bread and 15 varieties of chocolate.

They also sell products from two other Quebec abbeys, L'Abbaye St.-Benoit-Du-Lac and L'Abbaye de Spencer.

"Right now the store is the sole source of revenue for the monks," Plante said. "So we have to make sure it generates revenues and generates profits."

Plante is one of two non-monastery hires who are instrumental in taking the monastery's marketing and sales to a whole new level. The Trappists also have a production manager.

They've also been adding new machinery to make work less labour intensive, more efficient and improve product standardization, with expectations to sell widely on the web and now with contracts with more than 200 stores throughout Quebec.

These machines required hundreds of thousands of dollars investment. Plante points to the new peanut butter machine.

"The peanut butter machine we had was mainly grinding peanuts and then we had to whip them up to get the oil out of them and add some oil so it wouldn't stick together in a mass," he said.

100 JARS AN HOUR

Now the new Ontario-made machine can produce 100 jars of peanut butter in just over an hour.

"It's just helping us produce better and faster but it's not a fully automated plant, far from it," Plante stressed.

Plante is confident of sales beyond the province and has already made forays to Ottawa and Toronto to meet with stores which could stock the monks' products. Television advertising has also been ramped up in recent weeks.

New labelling is being done by a marketing firm "that works with a small microbrewery called Molson," Plante jokes, so the monks are in good professional hands, adding the consultant's other major client is giant food distributor Saputo. "They know about packaging and marketing," he said. "It's a major change and it's much nicer than what we used to have and it looks amazing."