Zita Cobb, founder of Fogo Island Inn, on conquering the unknown

Photo by Alex Fradkin

Zita Cobb is not afraid of the unknown. At the age of 16, she left her home in Newfoundland to attend Ottawa’s Carleton University. After graduating, she and a friend bought a van and drove it around North America, “anywhere there was a road,” she says, for six months until the vehicle eventually died in Calgary, a convenient time and place to begin a career in business finance in the oil patch.

Fast-forward 20 years to 2001: Cobb chose to celebrate retiring from her executive position at JDS Uniphase (at the end of a successful career during which she saw the company grow to 40,000 employees) by sailing the world for four years. “When you’re in the middle of the Atlantic, how well you’ll do depends on your own wit and how you plan and take care of the boat,” she says.

But taking care of a boat is nothing compared to her latest challenge, her biggest yet, and one that she was afraid of—the creation of the Fogo Island Inn, located on a tiny outport off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” she says. “I have never done anything of this scale—at one point, we had the biggest construction company in Newfoundland!”

The inn came to be when Cobb, 55, realized the island needed a self-sustaining economic boost beyond its mercurial fishing industry. Before returning to Fogo permanently in 2005, Cobb launched a scholarship fund for island residents in 2002. It was successful, but maybe too much so. One islander told her that while the fund was helping with education, there was nowhere on the island for students to use their new skills. It was, in effect, creating brain drain. “I was realizing that a scholarship is a tiny drop in a bucket that has big holes in it… whatever we did needed to be big enough to cause a shift in the perception of Fogo Island and in the confidence here,” she explains. “Genuine is the only way Newfoundlanders know how to be,” she says, and the people of Fogo have a “predisposition to hospitality,” so an inn was a given. Though some of the locals needed convincing that a project of this scale—a luxe 29-room property perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean—was what was needed.

“There was skepticism for sure,” Cobb says. During a community meeting in February 2009, where islanders and government representatives gathered in a church as a snowstorm raged outside, one local man responded to the idea of a hotel with confusion: “You’re going to do what?! What’s that got to do with fish?”

“In the room that day there were 10 per cent of people who thought, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard and I want to be part of it,’ 10 per cent who thought, ‘This is worst thing I’ve ever heard,’ and the other 80 per cent probably thought, ‘Oh god, this’ll never happen,’ or ‘Who’d ever want to come to Fogo Island when they could go to Paris,” Cobb explains.

The inn was opened in the summer of 2013; a stunning piece of architecture designed by Newfoundland-born and Norway-based architect Todd Saunders. The goal for both Saunders and Cobb was that this new inn be modern in style but strongly influenced by the island’s culture and history. “Architecture is not an end in itself but a tool,” Cobb says. “Its role here was to be a servant of the land—take the life of 400 years here and express it in a new way, and be relevant.”

And relevant it is. People are increasingly opting for Fogo Island over Paris, with guests visiting from other provinces as well as south of the border, notably New York and California.

As Cobb intended, when you visit the inn you’re really visiting the whole island. Along with a small team of advisors, Cobb and two of her brothers (she is the second-youngest of seven) launched the Shorefast Foundation, a non-profit organization that fosters economic, cultural and social initiatives on Fogo. The inn is the foundation’s economic engine—“The inn belongs to Shorefast and its mandate is to serve the community,” Cobb says. “Any surpluses from the inn go back into the community.”

Despite never before having run a hotel or having launched her own company, Cobb’s return to Fogo has been beneficial for both her and the island. “We wanted the inn to be a part of helping people give back to themselves,” Cobb explains. “Rural people don’t want to live in a museum and they don’t want to seem cute or quaint.” So, as the inn enters its third year, it continues to innovate. Last fall it launched a furniture collection, and this year the hotel plans to host food and design events.

As new innovations continue to grow, Cobb’s courage towards the unknown grows, too. She believes that sometimes a little fear can be a good thing: “My dad used to always say, ‘Don’t be afraid of the wind,’ but I find these days too many people are afraid.”

This story ran in S/Style & Fashion magazine (Spring 2015)

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