Zita Cobb is not your typical hotelier. But, then, nothing about the Fogo Island Inn — the hotel Cobb built in the remote reaches of Newfoundland — is typical. Perched on “stilts,” akin to the vernacular fishing shacks of the island, the 29-room inn has garnered rave reviews since opening in 2013; it’s been listed among Travel & Leisure’s “Hottest Hotels on Earth,” Architectural Digest’s “Ten New Daring Buildings Around the World” and Forbes’ “The Hotel Detective’s Best Hotel Rooms of 2013, Part Two.” Indeed, in only a few years, the charming, affable innkeeper has put Fogo Island and her innovative inn on the map.
Cobb never dreamed of being a hotelier — in fact, it was the farthest thing from her mind. Born to a poor family on Fogo Island, on the northeast corner of Newfoundland, she left the province to attend Carleton University in Ottawa, majoring in finance. “I wanted to understand the business systems behind what happened in the collapse of the cod-fishing industry,” she explains. After graduation, fuelled by ambition, she moved west where she held various jobs, eventually becoming CFO for Calgary-based fibre-optics giant JDS Uniphase. In 2001, at 43, she retired from the behemoth with stock options purported to be worth close to $70 million.
Cobb then travelled the world, sailing on a 47-foot yacht, and “making sense of what I wanted to do.” Four years later, the allure of home pulled her back to Fogo Island, where eight generations of her family have lived. The collapse of the cod-fishing industry in 1992 affected Newfoundland dramatically, she says, explaining that, as a member of the bridge generation, who remembered the way the province was before the demise of fishing, she felt “a sense of duty.” She realized her success could help effect change on Fogo Island, with its tiny community of 2,706 inhabitants, which had been impacted by the destruction of cod fishing and isolation through its harsh weather and geography.
After much deliberation, Cobb decided to open an inn. “Newfoundlanders and Fogo Islanders have a genetic and cultural disposition to great hospitality,” she says. “This industry has a great opportunity to fortify culture.”
She didn’t want to build an ordinary hotel. Instead, she chose to pay homage to her roots by ensuring the success and survival of the tiny province and she did it by using architecture, design, craft, food and art to make a statement. From a business perspective, she thought the best way to succeed was to set up a model of social entrepreneurship, a groundbreaking business model predicated on “using business-minded ways to create social good.” In essence, the inn is owned by the community through a trust whose beneficiary is the Shorefast Foundation, of which Cobb is the president. All hotel business decisions are made by the community, for the benefit of the community.
Like its founder, the hotel is one of a kind. “What sets us apart is authenticity,” she says. That starts with friendly down-home service, served up by 85 to 90 staff, who, she says are paid more than minimum wage. “Fogo Islanders believe in hospitality — human-to-human interaction that is not robotic.” Above all, Cobb wants to ensure guests feel as though they are walking into a traditional Newfoundland home.
The $40-million hotel was designed and created by Norway-based architect Todd Saunders, who happens to be a native Newfoundlander. “The inn took eight years to complete. The procurement was very hard,” explains Cobb. “We didn’t want to copy what was out there. You can’t build an inn on Fogo Island and then buy furniture from Italy,” quips Cobb. So instead, she invited 20 designers from around the world and gave them access to island history and local craftspeople, in the process creating a cottage industry. “Seventy-five per cent of the furniture is built on Fogo Island, and what we can’t purchase from Fogo Island, we buy from Newfoundland; what we can’t buy from Newfoundland, we buy from Canada; what we can’t buy from Canada, we buy from the U.S. or our traditional trading partners — Spain, Portugal and Italy,” says Cobb, who adds that she refuses to buy from jurisdictions that don’t promote sound human rights principles. This fall, Fogo Island forged a new partnership with Klaus by Nienkamper, Canada’s longest-running design showroom, to distribute the hotel’s line of handmade furniture and accessories internationally. The collection is available in- store and online.
“Everything at the Inn has potential for economic well-being for us,” she says. “If all of these people didn’t work together, you’re dead. The only way we are going to attack the plague of unemployment is to create ‘an economy of craft, care and culture,’” she adds, referencing her favourite economist, Tim Jackson. The hotel is described on its website as “a nest with fine linens, creative local cuisine, wood-burning fireplaces, a wood-fired sauna.” It even houses a cinema, run in tandem with the National Film Board of Canada, which showcases Hollywood films as well as The Fogo Island Process films, made in the 1960s by Colin Low and Memorial University, educating guests about the thorny issue of resettlement.
The hotel’s 55-seat restaurant draws on its storied history by promoting a menu highlighting local fish and seafood, especially cod, as well as caribou, potatoes and partridgeberries. “The North Atlantic is our pantry,” says Cobb. Chef Murray McDonald, who Cobb refers to as “a poor kid from Newfoundland,” has quickly established a benchmark for success, winning a slew of accolades, including a nod from EnRoute magazine for one of the country’s best restaurants in 2013. His inventive but down-home cuisine has included dishes such as A Caribou and What It Eats, made with caribou, caribou moss, partridgeberry, mushroom and sorrel.
Like most Newfoundlanders, McDonald and Cobb are passionate about sustainability. “Please think about how the fish was caught; where the fish comes from. It’s all about transparency,” she says. “You can explain the world in the metaphor of a cauliflower,” she states, explaining “Fogo Island is a small floret on a cauliflower that is called Earth. It’s held together by the stem (technology, business), but the stem has become so self serving that we’ve been starving the little florets.”
The hotel has instantly garnered critical success, fuelling a flotilla of favourable press around the world. Already, after only a year in operation, it’s hitting occupancy north of 50 per cent with rates ranging from $875 to $2,475 per night. “Our summer was way busier than we thought we’d be; we hit 100 per cent for more days than we wanted,” jokes Cobb. She knows it will take time to build the business, but she’s thrilled it’s quickly becoming a focal point in the community, drawing the bulk of its visitors from Toronto, New York and Montreal as well as California, and from as far away as Germany and Switzerland.
While geography, climate and culture have always shaped the indomitable character of Newfoundlanders, Cobb has taken all those elements and melded them into a new touchpoint for success. “Nature and culture are the two most important elements of human life,” stresses Cobb. Not surprisingly, the wily and determined businesswoman-turned-innkeeper has drawn on the past — even with all its challenges — to shape a new future. “We remain true to our ancestors, and we seek inspiration from our roots. We believe innovating the future can come from preserving our history.”