Elgin Women in Food (2019): Six Women Leading the Way

Written by Tanya Chopp

We interviewed six visionary Elgin County business owners on what it’s like to be running creative and challenging operations in food, hospitality and agriculture. We also asked them to describe women in business. While no two answers were exactly the same, there were some definite themes: Women in business have to be as resilient as they are driven, as passionate as they are nurturing and creative. Together, these women represent over a century of combined experience in food, hospitality and farming. Every business is more than a decade old, while some are nearing 40 or 50 years of operation.

Maria Fiallos and Val Fiallos-Soliman
Las Chicas Del Cafe, St. Thomas
Women in business, in three words: “Passionate. Brave. Challenging.”

Val: When it comes to our business, what lights my fire is knowing that failing is not an option. We know how many people depend on the business continuing. It’s very close to us, from the relationships we have to the small coffee growers that we buy from, to seeing our grandfather and our dad go through being coffee growers as well. We’re so linked to their struggle.
Maria: For me, roasting is a mixture of science and art. On the science side, there’s the chemical changes that happen in the coffee bean as you’re roasting, including caramelization, and dehydration. You have to understand how sugars behave, what density, temperature and airflow can do to influence your roast — and every bean, depending on its origin.
Val: I think for us, one thing that differentiates us is that not only are we connected to the origin (part of the coffee we bring in is from our dad’s farm), it’s also the approach we take with our customers. We’re very connected. It’s all personal. This past harvest was a real challenge. We didn’t finish receiving the harvest until mid-November. However, having those tight relationships with our coffee partners was truly valuable. They were really understanding, knowing that what going on was beyond our control, but the quality of the beans was still very important.
Maria: Personally, without sounding kind of cheesy or cliché, what I do really doesn’t feel like work, because there’s a greater purpose to our day than simply getting coffee orders out. Each day I’m thinking about the bigger picture: how we do justice to the coffee we’re roasting and make sure it’ll land in a place where it’ll be appreciated. And I don’t just mean that we want someone to think it’s delicious, we also want customers to feel that connection and that they’re proud to have our coffee in their establishment.
Running your own business, being self-employed, is probably the most stressful. Your everyday challenges can range from big to absolutely terrifying. But, when there’s a bigger picture — like Val mentioned — there’s no option for us to say that it just won’t work. So we’re always focused on how we can get over the next hump. I don’t get hung up on those small everyday challenges because they’re really just a small step to get onto bigger steps of running a business.
Maria: When it comes to the impact we hope to make, an important aspect of the business for us is that we help foster awareness. Sometimes, for people spending $15 to $20 on a pound of coffee, it can seem like a luxury item, but when you bring forth everything that’s involved in that pound of coffee and the repercussions, from where it’s produced, to how baristas are being paid, to how families who are working on plantations can benefit from a good market price, you can see how it’s a win-win situation. Awareness offers a segue into really caring more about the products we consume in general, whether it’s meat products, leather, food, coffee or more.
Val: We have a direct relationship with our retailers and aim to be connected to our consumers. So for us, it all comes down to helping people to take that coffee home and be absolutely in love with what they’re tasting. That’s how we’ve been able to really grow. We don’t have the finances and resources and big marketing campaigns or fancy packaging, but we’ve really focused on offering quality coffee.

Kim Saunders
The Windjammer Inn, Port Stanley
Women in business, in three words: “Resilient. Persistent. Nurturing.”

My work is my passion. I call it a lifestyle, not a career. I love working with food and drinks, experimenting, creating, feeding people — discovering new ingredients, combinations, exploring authentic recipes, and delving into the rich culture of food. My work feeds my soul, my heart, and my mind. It is never the same day twice, which always keeps it interesting!I work with a palette of tastes and textures as well as colours and visuals. Every dish has a little of my heart and soul in it and although the end results don’t physically last (hopefully they get eaten!) the memory created is also part of the art.

I feel whole when working in a kitchen. It helps to balance and focus me. I love noticing the nuances of a dish or ingredient as it comes together, the sounds, smells, tastes and sight of food and cooking comforts me and energizes me. I find it truly satisfying at the end of the day, knowing that I have put my time and energy into something that affects those around me in a productive, positive way.

Food links us all through time and space. Restaurants connect a network of farmers and suppliers with the guests. We create experiences and memories that tie us all together into a larger whole. Food is central in most cultures to celebrations and comfort. In times of joy and sorrow, prosperity and challenge, we gather around the table and eat. We bring people together, teach and tempt, satisfy the hunger physically, and often emotionally … All in a day’s work!

Brenda Smith
Pinecroft Green Frog Tearoom, Aylmer
Women in business, in three words: “Sincere. Engaged. Driven.”

We find satisfaction in providing a unique experience for our customers: from the freshly prepared menu to the visual experience of the entire property. Providing good value for their money, and making sure that our business is a great place to work for our employees. Since we are a “public relations service industry,” I strive to make everyone’s experience the best it can be.
Pinecroft opened in May, 1948 as a pottery studio, and remains the longest continuously operating studio in Canada. The tearoom was opened in 1978 by my mother and I to service the customers, who, at that time, were making a long drive out into the country to purchase our pottery. Both my son and daughter work with us in the business, with the intention that they will one day take over the operation.

I love what I do, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. Pinecroft represents a dream come true and a special place that, as a family, we are happy to share with everyone. After toughing out the first 35 years or so of running the restaurant, my son now manages the financial/business side, my daughter oversees all operations in the kitchen, my husbands bakes all the fresh bread and rolls and I continue to fill in where needed as cook, baker or sometimes server, while I am also filling the role of resident studio potter.

There is an element to artistry to what I do, for sure. Being a ceramic artist first tends to make me over zealous about food presentation, balance, and the ever important first impression of the food when it arrives at the table.

When I’m at work, I feel empowered, energized and thankful. Every day, someone thanks us for what we offer at Pinecroft. From the moment someone drives in the laneway, they begin to evaluate the business. We endeavour to make it the best experience, and one that will bring them back because of our good service, great food and beautiful scenery. A complete package.

Suzanne Steed
Steed & Co. Lavender, Central Elgin
Women in business, in three words: “Creative. Determined. Confident.”

With a passion for gardening and landscape design, I developed an agri-tourism business where we provide visitors with an experience for the senses. I have developed all of our handcrafted products as well as our culinary line of lavender inspired food products. I also manage the day-to-day operations at our farm.

Operating a farm brings new challenges every day and there is always something going on. I enjoy these challenges, even though I sometimes struggle through the difficult ones. But when a visitor comes to me and says, “Thank you for creating a beautiful place to visit,” it makes me smile and feel very proud of what I do.

There is absolutely an element of artistry in what I do! I take a lovely, fragrant herb (lavender) and create many specialty culinary products. For example using this herb in our culinary products can be tricky as it can overpower foods, so I’m always aiming to achieve a balance that is both interesting and enjoyable to the palate.

When you’re a business owner, you’re always thinking about your business. I can’t describe what it’s like to be in the zone, because I’m never out of it. I’m always mulling over different ideas, conducting research and finding that inspiration comes to me at all hours, including in the middle of the night. Recently, I was thinking about our jams and wondering about what a combination of lavender and orange would be like. How would the flavour interact with the citrus notes?

With our culinary products, I create the recipes, and pass them along to production, but with our soaps, I’m often creating them — so I’m in a productive zone then too. Plus, when I’m out in the community, I find that my business has become part of my identity. I was just in the grocery store and had someone come up to me and ask, “Aren’t you the lavender lady?” My business is always there. It becomes a part of who you are, and I’m sure any business owner could relate.

It always amazes me how people never think to consider lavender as an edible herb. After travelling through France, eating at French restaurants and speaking to many people who live there, I found that lavender is a popular ingredient in many dishes — from desserts to main courses featuring fish and chicken.

Lavender is the same family as mint. If you look at a lavender spike, it’s square — and if you look at a mint stem, it’s square also. We’re familiar with mint’s strong flavour, and lavender’s strength is similar. However, lavender has the ability to really enhance flavours. We have a raspberry-strawberry preserve, and lavender picks up the raspberry and helps it pop. It also enhances the flavour of our dark chocolate, and the vanilla in our ice cream. It’s remarkable in that way: it enhances whatever you use it with, but adds a floral note.

I hope that our lavender farm offers visitors an opportunity to escape from their hectic lives, to a peaceful rural setting, where they can stroll amongst the millions of beautiful lavender flowers from mid-June to mid-July. I encourage visitors to learn many of the great attributes this herb has to offer, including; growing, harvesting and cooking with lavender.

Lauren Vandixhoorn
SoLo on Main, Port Stanley
Women in Business, in three words: “Empower. Inspire. Talent.”

Knowing that my work in any aspect of the restaurant will result in a satisfied customer is what lights my fire. That’s what my work means to me too, that’s whole point: to make people happy. The music, the ingredients, drinks, the staff, decisions I make everyday are all for the good of the customer. It’s simple, and that’s what I like.

I also want people to find that when they dine here, there’s incredible value that goes into the experience they have. I believe that a restaurant provides more than just a place to eat — it offers a whole experience.

I always knew that this is what I wanted to do. I grew up in Port Stanley, and I remember walking on the docks across from this restaurant with my friend when I was 15, talking about what we were going to do when we were older, and thinking, ”I’m going to own a restaurant for sure.” I always knew I’d be a chef. I’m the kind of person who has to be in charge, and when the opportunity came, I felt like I was ready and knew I could do it. When you’re put into a position where you have to do it, it just happens.

There’s a level of workmanship in creating a menu, it has a flow, a balance. My menu has a personal touch that’s part of the vibe. It largely dictates the style of the restaurant. I’m inspired by the restaurants that I love to eat at, and even by social media. I might see a picture of something, feel like it looks good, and then try my own version of it. A lot of chefs are inspired that way — by a dish that you start tweaking until it becomes yours.

Good times are had at SoLo on Main! We’re inviting and we’re approachable. It’s just a chill place to enjoy some delicious, quality food, listen to awesome music and enjoy the view. I’ve worked very hard to make it so.

About the author

Tanya Chopp

Tanya Chopp is a storyteller and marketing professional. Over the past decade, she has enjoyed crafting and amplifying meaningful communications across the arts, culture, entertainment, health, wellness, and technology industries.