Brenna MacNeil may not have always been sure about her path to entrepreneurship, but she always knew where she came from. As a proud Cape Bretoner who values community, MacNeil asked a lot of questions and gained a lot of connections throughout her journey to owning her business. With a gracious amount of support, her hard work and curiosity led her back to her roots in the most unexpected way. Brenna is now able to support other local artists while feeding her own creativity and giving her daughter the beautiful Island life, she grew up with.
Brenna MacNeil was born in Inverness, in Western Cape Breton. Apart from moving for four years to Antigonish while her mother continued her education, MacNeil grew up in Inverness. Despite not feeling like she was creative artistically, she described being a very curious child who was never afraid to ask questions. “I feel like with creativity, you have to have that childlike curiosity about life. And I feel like I still have that,” said MacNeil.
At the age of eleven, she gained an interest in photography after being gifted a camera by her grandmother. Growing up on the beautiful island of Cape Breton, she took advantage of the landscape by taking scenic photos. In her twenties, she would print and glue her photos onto cards. MacNeil would then go into a shop on Central Avenue called The Bear Paw to sell the cards. The shop owner, Alice Freeman, supported many local artists in Inverness. “She was very supportive of me whenever I brought in cards or prints. So that’s where it started for me was with photography and cards and prints” explained MacNeil.
On her journey to owning The Corner Store by missbrenna, MacNeil was able to use that curiosity and ability to think of engaging questions within her different career paths. She studied for a Bachelor of Public Relations at Mount Saint Vincent University and landed her first PR job in Halifax with the Sisters of Charity. While working at Sisters of Charity, she conducted interviews and wrote their newsletters. She then taught English as a Second Language for two years in Korea alongside her husband, Brandon. “I was trying to think of interesting ways to engage with my students” says MacNeil, who included thought-provoking questions within her English lessons. While in Korea, she taught various age groups from children to business professionals. Brandon continued with his ESL career for many years, but MacNeil felt her path needed to take a new direction.
After returning home from Korea, MacNeil went back to school to study Graphic Design at NSCC. During a brief period in between an internship at an advertising agency and becoming a graphic designer for Dalhousie University, MacNeil saw an opportunity to self-publish a Q&A book she created as a school project. When she first came home from Korea, she took some of the questions she used in her lessons and made a party game out of them. This became an icebreaker at small parties to get to know the group. But the questions and game became her first creative project putting words and visuals together. “The book was called twentythree. There were 23 questions. And I thought 23 is a time when you’re really learning about yourself more, what you want to do, and who you want to be. And these questions really created a connection,” described MacNeil. Filled with photos, questions, and answers from 40 different people, it took 6 months to transform a school project into a self-published book. She then went on to sell over 200 copies and put on a couple of book launches. Shortly thereafter, MacNeil secured a full-time Graphic Design position at Dalhousie University.
While doing design work for Dalhousie, MacNeil enjoyed attending markets as a casual vendor. She started by selling cards with photos of Cape Breton on them. Then turned to printing a scenic calendar, along with designing a simple but classic silhouette shape of Cape Breton Island. It was during her maternity leave in 2013 that MacNeil began to use her design background on apparel. She saw the need for Cape Breton to have a modern, signature product for locals and tourists to wear with pride. MacNeil delivered with her first Captain Cape Breton t-shirt. Quickly followed by her Squaredance and Cape Breton Crew designs. These logos hit the markets initially as a side project. She loved being able to keep her day job while creating Cape Breton content.
By 2019, MacNeil noticed more people wearing her brand. With a lot of family and community support, she was able to sell her products in a couple of shops in Inverness and Brook Village. In 2020 when the pandemic hit, she thought this could be the end of her brand. She was very conscious about her spending and how many items she ordered in the spring for summer markets. But with the lockdowns, there was uncertainty of how much product she would need to order and if she would be able to sell it. That would all change with the help of one customer.
On Christmas 2019, Mary Janet MacDonald purchased a large order of hoodies for her grandkids. Unaware of her background, MacNeil decided to gift MacDonald with an apron as a thank you for her order. Little did she know Mary Janet MacDonald would wear that apron on the launch of her online cooking show ‘Tunes and Wooden Spoons’ during the pandemic in the spring of 2020. MacDonald grew a large social media following, so this bright red apron with MacNeil’s Cape Breton Crew logo became popular very quickly. MacNeil went from the usual 20-item orders to ordering hundreds. She shipped them across Canada and the United States.
In June of 2020, MacNeil and her husband moved back to Cape Breton for the summer and worked remotely. Due to the pandemic, the Mabou Farmer’s Market decided to open with tight restrictions and very few vendors. MacNeil took the opportunity to work as a full-time vendor that summer which made a huge difference for her brand. Being a regular vendor and always ensuring high-quality products was noticed by regular marketgoers, and they got to know her personally in the process. With overall online shopping increasing during the pandemic, her online store started picking up as well.
By the summer of 2021, more people were travelling and attending markets. MacNeil launched her Coastal Collection, which brought fresh, bright colours and more of that Cape Breton familiarity to her customers. From mid-October to the end of December, MacNeil’s brother-in-law was available to work a pop-up store for her while she continued her full-time job at Dalhousie University. She worked in the pop-up store on the weekends, which turned out to be a remarkably successful venture. MacNeil decided to launch a Makers and Bakers Pop-up weekend series at the store. This would highlight local bakers and help showcase their products. The Makers and Bakers launch also resulted in local customers coming back to the store to see something new and exciting on a regular basis.
After a successful pop-up store, MacNeil was ready to start considering a permanent location. She had her heart set on a location in Inverness, her bookkeeping company was willing to go the extra mile in helping her work on a business plan. After months of planning, figuring out finances, and trying to locate the building owner, the right connections led her to secure the building. The previous owner loved her plans for the store. Her brand, quality, and inclusion of other local artisans sealed the deal for him to sell to her. “Everything fell into place in a way that it was almost like a movie. It was amazing. I didn’t know all the steps, but I’m not afraid to ask the questions,” said MacNeil. With a lengthy list of those small, random conversations and questions that led to the opening of her store, MacNeil goes on to say, “Most of my professional advisors throughout all of this have been women, and absolutely stellar, incredible people. When you look at the list of people, I have that I can ask questions to, it’s pretty awesome. I feel really lucky in that regard as well.”
The Corner Store by missbrenna is in a building with a long history. An absolute dream come true for MacNeil; she says she never thought about opening a store anywhere else. She grew up going to the convenience store that used to be there with her family and cousins. Her customers feel that same nostalgia when they walk in. It is a comforting place for MacNeil. A place for community connections, memories to be shared, and candy to be eaten.
While choosing a name for the store, MacNeil considered the local connection. It is located in the first community before you enter Inverness from the south side, called The Corner. Considering the community’s name and the fact it was a convenience/corner store for many years, with family input and local inspiration, MacNeil chose The Corner Store by missbrenna. This represents the place, the history, and her brand name all at once. MacNeil says community response to the name has been positive.
For anyone who has been following the brand for a long time, they don’t just have one piece from the Love Cape Breton Collection. MacNeil introduces collections with limited quantities, limited colours, and new logos. The anticipation of when it will come out, what the new design will be, and when it will sell out keeps her loyal fanbase coming back for more. MacNeil finds inspiration for her designs from various aspects of Cape Breton Island itself. From walking along the beach to Celtic traditions and even drawing from phrases the locals use. She enjoys changing it up frequently, by ordering unique items including socks, hats, and windbreakers to name a few. Not knowing if, or when the product will be back again is part of her brand. MacNeil says she considers her customer base while placing orders. She tries to keep her clothing orders mostly with Nova Scotian companies and she is mindful of ordering high quality. “There’s a story that goes with each of these products” she explains. MacNeil supports local businesses as often as possible and is grateful for the local support she has been given throughout her journey.
MacNeil leaves the interview with a hint that missbrenna fans have a new collection to look forward to in the upcoming future with a brand-new logo. But in the meantime, she is keeping busy with her store. She continues to support local artists and local businesses by putting on workshops. She has rented out her kitchen to a local vendor who has helped more of her visions come to life. While there are mostly Nova Scotian-based products, MacNeil notes that there are also fine foods products from Quebec and Italy as well. Gathering rare items that may not otherwise be available in Cape Breton gives The Corner Store by missbrenna that extra hint of adventure within the comfort of The Corner. After living in Halifax for 25 years, MacNeil is happy to be home and giving her daughter the Island life, she grew up with.
To keep up with Brenna MacNeil, her designs, and business events, make sure to follow her on social media. We also recommend that you stop by and say hello the next time you are making your way through Cape Breton, you’ll be happy that you did.
by Gabrielle Gamblin