What started as a beer and ukulele night a few years ago has grown into a robust side hustle for Haliburton Highlands Brewery (HHB).
“We had a sold-out beer and ukulele night with Nick Russell. We ended up with a couple of extra ukuleles. We hung them up. The two little hooks on the corner were the first two ever,” owner Michael SchiedelWebb says as he stands behind the bar in front of a wall of the instruments.
Back then, pre-COVID, people used to perch on bar stools. Inevitably, they would ask about the ukuleles and the brewery started selling some.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2023, and HaliUkes is a going concern.
“We knew what we had to do,” their website reads. “Purchasing well-priced ukuleles and marketing them on our wall has led to relationships with several ukulele manufacturers, and a few firsts. HaliUkes is the premier Canadian location for Flight Ukuleles, Outdoor Ukuleles and Worth strings. We’re dedicated to introducing the world of ukulele to Canada.”
Schiedel-Webb said when they sold their first ukuleles, they bought better ones, and on and on it has gone. He estimates he represents 15-20 brands, including some that established music stores cannot source. They are a specialty shop, with probably the broadest range of available instruments in Canada. Other providers have websites, and people can order online, but the upstairs of HHB contains a room where stock is kept. Schiedel-Webb comes alive as he wanders the space, selecting different ukuleles to show off. It’s also where he does minor adjustments and restringing for customers.
HaliUkes ships across Canada, mostly Ontario and Quebec, but have sent some to the U.S., including Hawaii, and Europe. Naturally, they are the go-to locally, for full-time and seasonal residents as well as visitors.
“We get calls from all across the country. In particular from company websites and brand manufacturers looking for who carries them. We’re the ones that get pointed to in Canada for a lot of brands.”
Naturally, COVID has thrown up supply chain challenges, but there are an estimated 150-200 ukeleles in the room. “Instruments ranging from your beginner all the way to the most expensive ukulele we’ve sold, which is about $3,500,” the brewer says.
There is a ukelele made from Utah license plates, one from tin cans, many wooden models and even some electric. Some have steel strings. One is triangular. There are soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, UBass and guitaleles.
Schiedel-Webb goes on to school his visitor in the history of ukuleles. The triangle models were used in schools because they didn’t need stands. And Canadian musicians taught Hawaiians formal ukulele because it was in our music curriculums.
He said tourists “pick up the less expensive ones because they’re looking for something for their kids to poke around with or they’re looking for something to do. They play guitar but use the smaller ukulele on vacation.” People who have been playing for awhile come for their “next step” ukuleles. Some buy them as gifts.
There are plenty of local ukulele fans and groups, such as the Ukeladies. HHB is also starting up its ukulele night on Mondays. There is a shared love of the instrument. In summer, people bring their ukuleles for a strum on the patio.
What does Schiedel-Webb get out of it? “I get to spend time researching ukuleles and watching reviews and playing with them. Every one of them that comes in and I get to decide which ones I want.”
He tells a story he has heard about George Harrison. Apparently, the former Beatle used to drive around with ukuleles in the trunk of his car and visit other musicians, to teach them to play and to jam.
“He’d say, ‘how can you not be happy when you pick this thing up and play it and poke around’? Even if you’re not a virtuoso, so it’s been an interesting experiment.”