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Award-winning First Nation caterer diversifies

May 24, 2013
by Graham Strong
In: Supplier Showcase

Windigo Catering brings home Skookum Jim Award

Windigo Catering prepares more than 1,000 meals per day at Goldcorp’s Musselwhite Mine, including 450 breakfasts, 450 dinners, and a limited lunch menu for approximately 150 people.

This past March, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) awarded Windigo Catering the Skookum Jim Award, recognizing Aboriginal achievement in the mineral industry.

“The Windigo chiefs, directors and all the staff are really proud to win that award,” said Debbie Korobanik, general manager of Windigo Catering. “I think it’s excellent recognition for how hard the staff work at the mine.”

Windigo has the catering contract for Goldcorp’s Musselwhite Mine, located about 480 kilometres north of Thunder Bay as the crow flies and 728 kilometres by road.

Windigo first started providing catering services to the mine in 1993 through Windigo Community Development Corporation (WCDC) before being spun-off as a for-profit limited partnership in 2006. Windigo prepares more than 1,000 meals per day at Musselwhite, including 450 breakfasts, 450 dinners, and a limited lunch menu for approximately 150 people, Korobanik said. Windigo also provides camp management, housekeeping/janitorial and laundry services. Employees work on a two-weeks on, two-weeks off schedule.

About 80 per cent of the staff is of Aboriginal decent, Korobanik said, with 50 per cent coming from four nearby First Nation communities: Kingfisher Lake, Wunnumin Lake, Cat Lake, and North Caribou Lake. Both Cat Lake and North Caribou Lake are among the seven communities that make up the Windigo First Nations Council, which was formed in 1977 to create the Windigo Lake Transporation Company, the forerunner to the WCDC.

Windigo Catering employs 68 people, including six Red Seal chefs, Korobanik said. Between 30-34 employees and managers are onsite at Musselwhite at any given time.

Korobanik said Windigo Catering offers employment opportunities that just weren’t there before. Not only that, Windigo tends to pay workers a higher-than-industry-average wage, and also provides benefit packages.

“We’re all aware that young people from these communities are not necessarily going back to their communities when they finish college or university or even high school,” Korobanik said. “There’s just not employment in the community.”

Windigo is helping to change that with one flight per week between Musselwhite and the four communities, allowing employees to work at the mine without moving away from home.

However, this arrangement does come with some staffing challenges for the company. If an employee is sick or misses the flight for some reason, they can’t come in to work until at least the following week. A replacement for that employee would have to come from Thunder Bay, which is Musselwhite’s regular staging area for flights to the mine. (Although there is road access, for security reasons Musselwhite only allows mine employees to fly in and out, Korobanik said.)

Ensuring a constant supply of food items and other products is another challenge for the company. Windigo uses only fresh ingredients, preferring to make as many meals from scratch as possible. Working 12 hours away from the nearest supplier means that replacement ingredients can’t be just shuttled to their kitchen.

“If we get a box of lettuce that’s frozen or on the verge of turning, it’s not like we can call the supplier and say, ‘Hey, come back and get this box,’” Korobanik said. In order to avoid this problem, Windigo expanded its base of suppliers from five to 12 to ensure quality. The fact that they are one of the top food purchasers in the region helps. It may take extra work, but fresh is worth it she said.

The company even sought out certified bakers so that the cafeteria smells like fresh bread and other baked goods when workers arrive for breakfast. Korobanik said that focusing on food quality may help retention in what is usually a high-turnover industry. “The miners are like, ‘Oh my god, this is so good!’”

Making everything fresh also benefits Windigo. “It gives more people employment,” Korobanik said. “If we were buying all packaged food, we wouldn’t need as many employees.”

Korobanik said that the company is actively seeking other catering contracts, and was recently awarded a three-year, camp-cooking contract with MNR during forest fire season. The company is expanding in other directions as well, including janitorial supply and services, and recently secured a contract with the Thunder Bay Police Service. Windigo is also in the process of purchasing Boreal Solutions, a janitorial supply company with offices in Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie.

“Windigo Catering is in the right place at the right time,” Korobanik said. “The economic and political climate (is such that) people want to do business with First Nations. We have this successful business and people are knocking on our door to work with us.”

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