Shovelling delights in River Heights
Awesome city yard-care company offers joyful service to residents
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/02/2022 (481 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On a day like Feb. 10, where thick, unforgiving snow blankets Winnipeg, Mark Riddell knows a deep freeze is coming.
After working in snow clearing for 11 years, Riddell’s familiar with the drill — get all hands on deck and get to clients in the precious few hours between the snow stopping and the cold settling in.
Armed with a plow, snowblower and a pile of shovels in the back of a well-loved Chevy truck, he and three young shovellers rush to clear the parking spots, pathways and driveways of the River Heights neighbourhood.
“We’re taking advantage of this calm spell here,” Riddell tells the Free Press while navigating a small plow attached to an old truck behind a Brock Street home Thursday afternoon.
“Normally, I wouldn’t care, right? Most people don’t even expect me to come probably till tomorrow, but I’m tired of freezing.”
Riddell owns the descriptively-named Mark’s Lawn Care and Snow Removal Service, a small operation with a simple mantra: for around $150 a month, depending on what his 50-ish clients need, Riddell and his team will take care of whatever the weather hands their yard, year-round.
There’s just one caveat: you have to live in Riddell’s home turf, River Heights.
It is a tiny operation of just a few staff — “There is no 7-Eleven in the snow removal business,” he says — and more than a decade of helping his neighbours has brought with it years-long friendships. Around 80 per cent of the clients Riddell has now, he’s had since he started.
“I know what they do, I know what they like, I know what they don’t like,” he says. “I know when they get divorced, I know when their kids get married.”
It’s not all community outreach, however. When the snow gets heavy, like it has so many times this winter, it can be exhausting work.
“It’s a great way to stay fit, I’ll tell you that,” Riddell, 60, says with a laugh. “It’s like going to one of those fitness camps you pay $1,000 a day for.”
Riddell’s a naturally funny guy — while clearing snow with the Free Press, he spends most of the hours cracking jokes and laughing at those jokes.
The extroverted demeanour has served him well over his lifetime of entrepreneurship. Riddell says he’s never had a job he didn’t build from scratch, and he’s never had a job that didn’t rely on connecting with people.
Before lawn care, he owned a string of restaurants and bars, perhaps most notably Spectrum Cabaret, which he built out of a garage when he was 24 and would later become the Pyramid after he sold it. His brother owned the iconic Blue Note Café.
“I never wanted to work another weekend if I didn’t have to; I never wanted to work another night. Even though it was so much fun, it becomes tiring,” he says.
His tone, only briefly, becomes a little somber.
“The restaurant and bar business is something you have to marry. It becomes your social life, it’s all-encompassing. But it’s a lot.”
Snow is his business now, and business is booming.
Coming off Winnipeg’s snowiest January in more than a decade, February appears to be more of the same. On Feb. 10 alone, around eight centimetres of snow fell.
According to retired meteorologist Rob Paola, who tracks city snowfall from his Charleswood home (Environment and Climate Change Canada stopped taking official snowfall measurements in 2005), the city has already had more snow since October than it usually gets the entire winter season.
That level of snow can be debilitating to some of Riddell’s clients. Beth Geisel, 76, has a disability that makes it impossible to clear her own snow when it gets too heavy.
Riddell has cleared her yard for most of the 12 years she’s lived in River Heights.
“Every once in a while, I have something I can’t do… and he’ll do it for me,” she says. “But as you can see, he’s always a pleasant person to deal with… and when the snow falls, he’s there to clear the snow.”
She recalls a recent time when Riddell, knowing there’d be a windrow in her path after the City of Winnipeg plows came through, came on his own time to clear it out.
Riddell’s clientele ranges widely — busy CEOs, front-line workers burnt out from the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors who hire him to help, as he puts it, “hang on to their home.”
David Garfield, an accountant who has lived with his wife and two children in River Heights for 27 years, has been getting his snow shoveled by Mark’s for about 10 years, in part, “because he’s a neighbour.”
Riddell and his staff are year-round visitors, and they have a friendly relationship.
“It’s supporting a business in the neighbourhood. And, generally, if I want to hire someone, I prefer someone in the area,” Garfield says. “But Mark, he’s very personable, and he’s easy to stick with. I like him.”
“There’s a certain trust to it, because you’ve got to close the gates,” Riddell says. “They’ve got to trust that I don’t bring in bad apples who are casing their garage out.”
His staff, he hopes, gets some life experience before moving on; Riddell tries to be conscious this is often a stepping stone to other work.
On Thursday, 38-year-old Robbie Antsanen, speeds through the snow like it’s butter. He’s from Thompson, a little introverted, and is, as Riddell jokes, “The only guy I’ve had who’s never said, ‘I’m cold.’”
Russell Sand, affectionately referred to as “Russ,” was celebrating his 29th birthday. He’s Riddell’s right-hand man. “(Riddell’s) always been kind of like a father figure to me, essentially,” he says.
Some small joys of the job are seeing the clients who have come to recognize him and getting to meet people’s pets — “I’m such a dog person,” Sand gushes. On his off time, he’s an artist; landscapes, mostly, with pencils and charcoals.
“Outdoors work is a lot more fun than staying indoors,” the North End resident says. “You get to enjoy the fresh air, you get to be around a lot of nice people along the way. It helps you connect with the community around here.”
Riddell has no plans to retire any time soon. It’s a more comfortable living, coming from running a 400-seat nightclub, he says.
He also has no plans to expand. It’s tempting to take on more clients when the weather is milder, but because he and his staff are expected to come out, no matter the weather, the capriciousness of Mother Nature means workdays can last anywhere from eight to 14 hours.
“It’s also going to weed out some weekend warriors. Guys who, they take 12, 14 contracts, but they find out pretty quick,” he says.
He breaks out into a familiar laugh.
“I buy equipment off them all the time.”
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.