Women with a Seat at the Table: The Stratford Interviews

Written by Tanya Chopp

The following interviews contain material that was condensed or edited in the print version of Eatdrink magazine, Issue #70.


Carrie Wreford, Co-owner, Bradshaws Kitchen Detail

What led you to your current job?

CW: It [taking over ownership of Bradshaws] was somewhat of an unexpected turn in my career. I’m from Toronto and my husband Jeremy, who I met in Toronto, is from Stratford. Jeremy and I were living and working in Toronto, where I was a graphic designer and he was a set designer. At that time his family, who are the the former owners of Bradshaws, were getting ready to retire and they had put their business up for sale. After a buyer fell through, they called and mentioned it to us. We initially said to them that we were sorry it hadn’t worked out, but after we hung up, we started to talk between ourselves… This is a business that’s been around for almost 100 years — it’s a business we love. Would we be able to get involved? We were at the point where we were looking for a lifestyle change and to start our family. So, 12 years ago, we did the unexpected thing of quitting our jobs and moving to Stratford.

We knew the business and knew it was something we’d be interested in doing but, because it was old and established, we had to determine what our roles would be and where we wanted to take the business and breathe life into it — to remain relevant and viable for years to come. On that front, we had a different outlook. Our generation was beginning to shop online and shoppers were becoming more technically savvy. So we came to the table with a few ideas of our own to help the business progress into the future.

My role here is varied. I do a little bit of everything. My primary focus is buying (along with Jeremy), but I also focus my attention on marketing, social media, community outreach and events.

What do you get enjoyment from in your role?

CW: The thing I love about my job is that no two days are the same. It’s so important for me. I can feel bored easily but I’ve landed in the perfect career: I get to be social and do the things I love, especially things related to cooking, which I’m passionate about. I get to meet people in our community and give back and I get enjoyment from trying to push forward.

We are change makers in our store, and we want to bring new things forward. That’s enjoyable: making things better and trying new things.

We also partner with people in the community — creating events with other businesses that align with what we do. We do high tea events at Revival House every year for Mother’s Day and at Christmas time. They have turned into huge, sold-out events.

How did the high tea begin?

CW: I wanted to create something really unique that wasn’t happening in our town.

At Bradshaws we sell Sloane Fine Tea, which is based out of Toronto. It’s an exquisite line that you need to try and experience. We wanted a way to educate our customers and pull people together, and with that, we got involved at Revival House. I also went to Sloane Tea, as well as a local florist (Stratford Blooms) and created the event, which is basically a tutored tea tasting and get-together. We work very closely with the chef (Loreena Miller) at Revival House to pull together a curated menu — she’s amazing.

We really work together to create something special. It’s amazing — it was so well received that we launched a Holiday High Tea, and Stratford Symphony Orchestra came on [to perform] as well. We served Christmas-inspired foods, and it was a good way to get together, savour life, and unwind before the holiday season.

What do you hope the difference is, that you’re making in people’s lives?

CW: The way that I approach everything that we do here at our store, I use myself as [a gauge] asking, “What would I want to see or feel?”

It’s very important for me that customers come in and get really great customer service and they feel that they’re not just going into a store where you get no assistance. That can be draining and overwhelming. We want customers to find things that they like, be aware of how to use them properly, and get a lot of guidance along the way to make the right choices.

When I go into people’s homes, I often find that they’re using tools in their kitchen that are not working to their advantage, but they don’t notice because they’ve never stopped and gotten help. I want to be part of life made easier by using the right tools.

I partnered with Stratford Chefs School and we started running knife skills and sharpening for beginners. That was a course in partnership with them that we worked on the whole course plan. We wanted people who came to get a good education on use and care, and how to be safe in the kitchen.

What’s it like to be part of the culinary scene in Stratford?

CW: I’m very passionate about where I live. Here, you meet people and collaborate and I’ve been very lucky getting to know people of all walks, through different classes that I’ve taken and boards I’ve been on.

It’s important to me to help make our city a better place. I just got an email today from the local food community in Stratford — we donate to the Seed, Feed and Lead program for youth.

They have this special 12-week program for youth, where they get to learn not only how to cook, but also to budget, plan grocery lists and execute meals. Then they get to take a healthy meal home to their families after each course lesson. They’re taking food home, feeding their families and at the end get to leave with kitchen tools, so they can continue their practice at home. I’m really passionate about what they do there — teaching young people. It’s a skill.

What do women bring to the table in business?

CW: I think we’re starting to have more strong female voices at the forefront. I think the women in Stratford are incredible. I have made so many great partnerships and friendships and have learned so much from everyone else.

Back in the day, things were more competitive. You set up your business and everyone would fend for themselves, but today people are more interested in trying things together and collaborating, and I think that’s what’s happening in Stratford. I also think that’s what our customers like to see — all of us, trying things out with one another.

I think it’s very important for women to lift each other up and motivate each other and support each other. Also, it’s important for women to be strong positive role models for women who are coming up in the ranks.

I think that an inherent trait in women, and not to say that men don’t have it, is being nurturing. Nurturing to your business, your staff and what you do. But it’s a balancing act. [Owning a business] is amazing and I love it, but there’s also the element of women entrepreneurs who are also parents, who work all day and then run our family homes and take care of the kids as well.

Finding a level ground between your lifestyle and work is very crucial, and I’m learning how to find that myself: how to maintain stamina and mental health and not burn yourself out when you love what you do… how to create space for you.

What advice do you have for others?

CW: I would say that every job I’ve ever had, I’ve always started at the bottom and figured it out along the way. My advice for people is if there’s something you’re interested in, find a way to work with people you respect and admire. Learn from them and take from them what will help you when you’re ready to go out on your own and create your vision. But put in the time and get your hands dirty before you jump into something. Get in there, work hard, learn everything you can — go out and find a mentor. That’s something that I think is really important.

Anything else you’d like to add?

CW: Our business is 123 years old — that’s unusual in today’s retail environment. We’re always trying to think of our current customer and future customer, so we’re always trying to ensure that we’re including everyone in the picture here. It’s important to be relevant here in society. We’re a family-run Canadian business for six generations and we may have a lot of history on our side, but we also have a lot of fresh new ideas and that’s how we tackle every day.

Our business is run by a team of women who are incredible at what they do. I rely heavily on their expertise and their ability. It’s a team effort in our store. There are three men who work here but out of 20 of us, 17 are women. We have an incredible team, and when people talk about our store, they mention many of our staff as the reason they shop here. We just want to enjoy every day, and love what we do, and continue for generations to come.


Yva Santini, Chef,  Pazzo Taverna

Tell me about what you do and why you love to do it.

YS: As a chef I started cooking and working in kitchens when I was really young. I’m going on about 18 years of working in this field now, but [this career] happened very naturally for me. I’d say it was a mix of hard work, good luck, good timing and a sort of a drive to explore this avenue, but it all felt very natural at the same time. I graduated Stratford Chefs School in 2009, I’ve been at Pazzo’s for 11 or 12 years, and this is my seventh year as Chef.

What inspires you?

YS: Inspiration comes from authenticity in tasty and delicious Italian food. I grew up in an Italian family and I strive to capture the essence of Italian culture, where life revolves around food. I’m realizing now in my life, that my days are often planned over what’s for lunch, breakfast, dinner — and I’ve met people who don’t live like that. But that’s part of how I was raised, especially by an Italian father.

In the restaurant, I try to offer that sort of thought process and culture around food: it’s delicious and made with whole ingredients. I like to know where it’s coming from, but first and foremost it has to be delicious.

This article is coming out in March/April — should we mention any food that will be featured at that time?

YS: In March and April, we feel like it’s spring to us, because we’ve just had this long winter. But unfortunately it’s not spring for any vegetables yet. At Pazzo’s, we still carry our winter menu until sometime in April, although marsh marigolds, fiddleheads and asparagus (if we’re lucky) will start to make an appearance on the menu.

However, the menu is most likely to be Roman-focused, with Pecorino Romano, meat, eggs, rich flavours black pepper.

Are there signature dishes that eatdrink readers should be aware of?

YS: Our pasta program has been developed, refined and expanded, and what we have to offer in terms of Italian made in-house pastas is the best in the city. They’re special, and made with care. Pasta is where my heart is, it’s getting to my roots, and how I keep my chops. For those coming in, I’d say to try one of the pastas.

It’s been said that restaurant work is not for the faint of heart. What drives you?

YS: Life is such a big picture, but what drives me at work isn’t my past, as much as it is my future. I know that I can do anything. I feel very confident and ambitious, but I do know that the food that we’re making makes people happy and there’s a lot of positive feedback. It’s special for people and they enjoy it. When I walk around the dining room and see empty plates and hear people talking about how they loved their meal, it makes it worthwhile. I’m also very attracted to the business side of it. To have a business based on people’s enjoyment is very complex and it’s not easy. I’m still trying to learn.

I’m also driven to make the food taste good, and I’m satisfied by the type of work it is, when I‘m cooking on the line. I make food that I like, first and foremost.

What it’s like to be a woman in the industry?

YS: I think gender politics are particularly delicate to discuss, and in my current job, and past jobs, I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to work with very wonderful and supportive people.

Gender isn’t an issue, because it’s not a gender-focused industry. The food speaks for itself. I like to think that I’ve reached where I am because of what I’ve done, and the support I’ve had from people. Having learned from my mentors (especially my parents) on how to treat people equally, it’s just what I do in return.

Currently, the most influential women in my life are probably my friends, my mother and the women who open businesses — but men are also influential to me.

What advice would you offer to others who are entering the field?

YS: We really have to pay attention to ourselves and get know ourselves. Know what about yourself is nature, versus nurture, and be self-aware. You’ll be able to observe how you treat others, and respect is the number one thing in our world. It keeps the ball rolling and keeps people as happy as they can be — and that means respecting yourself as well.

What do you love about Stratford?

YS: I’m from St. Marys, but I moved here when I was 17. I feel committed to the community, and I love that Stratford is in a period of growth. It’s an exciting feeling. You’ll see young people, men and women, opening businesses: risky, exciting businesses that are excelling. As much as Toronto can be appealing, Stratford has a tremendous amount to offer, and has a great community.

Describe your kitchen.

YS: The vibe in the kitchen is very fast-paced. We always listen to music and there is a high level of professionalism and an excellence in the quality we make. Because of the stress and the nature of the work, I don’t think it’s fair to put any more stress on people. I’ll push as far as I need to to get the work done, then I stop and allow people to be independent and feel safe. You’re spending a long shift together. We have a small room. When someone’s morale is chipped or negative or grey, it really can affect everybody so it’s an incredibly positive work environment… incredibly supportive. I got the chef job at 24. I haven’t worked anywhere else. So when I welcome new apprentices in, I like to learn from them in return. There’s a lot of respect and understanding. Everyone is responsible for themselves and I allow them a little creativity. The vibe, I’d say, is professional and jolly.


Candice Wigan, Co-owner,  Revival House

Tell me about your entrance into the culinary scene in Stratford.

CW: I’ve been in this industry for over 25 years — I’ve always enjoyed it. I started when I was 15 as a banquet server, then at 19 started bartending and serving as I worked my way through university. I come from a family that was very passionate about education and it was very important that I got a degree in something. However, that whole time I was in my career and didn’t know it… until I met my husband (Rob) in my late 20’s. He was chef at The Loft in Toronto and I was helping run front of house there. We fell in love. And we both had passion for the culinary scene.

Rob and I were travelling back and forth from Toronto to Stratford and fell in love with Stratford. It’s a small town that feels cultured, with so much to offer at an arm’s reach. We moved here about 10 years ago and bought Molly Bloom’s and started there. I’d worked at Scottish and Irish pubs in Hamilton, where I grew up. However I come from a French-Canadian background, and I was always dreaming of French cuisine. I was really hoping to get into something more my style, so three years ago we purchased Revival House, which was then The Church restaurant. I figured we could really make it our own.

Through all of the years that I spent serving and bartending, I became a good bartender and wanted to expand on my bar list. I really started getting into being a bar chef, playing around with cocktails and using my own garden. I built beautiful herb gardens and take the herbs to the restaurant — they’re in everything from the mojitos to the lavenders that we also use in the kitchen. We make really beautiful, elegant cocktails that are so fresh and very seasonal.

In addition to all the herbs we grow which are used in the kitchen, Chef (Loreena), keeps things really local. Perth County is so rich. The quality of life here is so so good. We can afford to eat well without breaking the bank, and while staying within a 100-mile diet.

Why are you so passionate about working in restaurants — you’ve loved it for a long time!

CW: I love food! I also love large family get-togethers, and hosting friends. I guess it’s just that camaraderie that builds over food, and the conversations that we have. I always overeat and overindulge. I must have cheese at least twice a day — its a staple! Wine is also a passion and I have my Sommelier Level 1.

It comes naturally. I can easily strike up conversations with people. I’m just passionate about it.

Tell me about Revival House.

CW: Revival House was built in 1867. It has this old beautiful grandeur to it, and it’s so unique. It was a church, after all. We try to keep it accessible to everyone, both in terms of price point and food that is approachable — we have a range, from duck confit to poutine, on the menu.

In addition to the beautiful space, and approachability, I also work very closely with the staff. Our Event Coordinator, Alysha Ford, is an empowering female I work with. We hosted 35 weddings and 20 concerts last year. We can get about 150 (capacity) in for a wedding, as well as concerts. Our Chef, Loreena Miller, is a Stratford Chefs School graduate who loves French cuisine. She’s so open-minded and accepts suggestions. I’m lucky to work with two strong, independent women, who are an everyday inspiration.

What do women bring to the table?

CW: I’ve worked with men and women in the kitchen and in my experience, there’s a huge difference. I think that women are more open-minded and flexible. Women tend to be a little bit more forgiving. We teach and learn from each other, and don’t get off-guard with one another. However, women have to learn how to say “no,” and need to find the strength to look out for the best interest of the people we work with. I have this really great, open relationship with both of these women [Chef Miller and Alysha Ford]. Our menus are constantly evolving, and we have a really great open repertoire.

What fuels your creativity?

CW: The people I work with. My staff are inspiring every day. Revival House hosts wedding and events, and no two events are the same. Whether Chef is doing a specific wedding or event, she has to be creative and on her toes. Items are based on seasonality, and I have to change up my cocktail menu and wine list. We change our menu every four to five months. Sometimes my cocktail menu will evolve with Chef’s menu, and I’ll tie it in with what she’s bringing forth.

We have quite a few concerts booked in March and April. We’re gearing up for spring, which is great.

We are so event-driven that we are booked with events at least one day a week. We’ve had many great musicians play, such as Jully Black and Eh440. We also do a lot of non-profit work. Our International Women’s Day event benefits a non-profit, and includes a three-course meal (family style) with tickets at around $25 each.

Any advice for other women entrepreneurs?

CW: I think that we need to surround ourselves with more women, and I want to surround myself with more women. I feel empowered by them and I’m always learning more from them. I’m going to be 40 this year and I’ve finally grown into my own skin. I know I’m on the right career path. I’m here to better myself for the rest of this life, and other women can help me do that.

Also, don’t be afraid to say no — it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Neither does being calculating — it means you’re being organized, and thinking of things in advance. It’s ok to say no.


Kristene Steed, Co-owner, Rhéo Thompson

Why are you Christmas shopping now?

KS: Much better to do it now than in the summer! We’re always looking for inspiration. In Toronto [right now] we’re strictly buying the gift aspect. It’s nothing to do with production, it’s what we put with it — containers, gifts, themed ornaments, etc. We have a large number of ornaments that we sell throughout the year. We also put together different papers, ribbons etc, every day of the year. If customers are coming to buy a gift, they may want it for a certain occasion or want it to reflect Stratford. We’re always finding things that are practical — whether it’s for your kitchen, purse, or home. We enjoy that, and our gift designers, Marsha and Caroline, have been with us for a long time. We know our customers and we’re fortunate to have customers who come from quite a distance.

How did you enter the business?

KS: I grew up in Stratford and grew up respecting the company and enjoying the products, but I didn’t ever imagine that I’d be involved.

It didn’t cross my mind until I’d spent a couple of years in corporate retail in Toronto. I knew I’d come back to Stratford eventually and when the opportunity presented itself, it was at a family Christmas dinner.

My dad shared that Rhéo (Thompson) had been talking at a Rotary Club meeting, about how he didn’t have a succession plan yet. It was just something that my dad shared in conversation, but afterwards, my husband Mark and I each commented to one another, “I’ve been thinking…”

Mark’s father had had a bakery and so he grew up working in the bakeshop. I had always worked in retail, at Bradshaw’s in London and Stratford.I moved into corporate retail in Toronto, which I enjoyed, but I missed being with the public.

Mark loves the kitchen and cooking. I love the procurement and marketing side of the business. And it’s interesting because, for the Thompsons, Rhéo had looked after the making of the candy and Sally had looked after the front half… something about it had just clicked. So even though it [purchasing Rhéo Thompson] hadn’t been on our radar, when it presented itself, it just made sense.

How has your role at Rhéo Thompson evolved?

KS: As a co-owner in any small business, you wear a lot of hats.

Mark looks after the production side and has a team that works with him. He’s one of our three candymakers and runs the administrative side of the business. I look after the front end, the merchandising and procurement, HR, marketing and anything else that has to do with the public and presentations. I don’t make any [product], but I’m heavily involved in the packaging.

We have about 27 employees full-time now, split between the two sides of the operation, and we’re both owner-operators.

We bought the business knowing the reputation and the hard work involved, and we firmly believe that we wouldn’t ask someone to do something we wouldn’t do. We succeed on the sum of all of our parts — because of all the hard work our team does. When you work with food, you can’t rest. You can never stop and you can’t let your guard down, ever. Are we perfect? No. Do we try to do our best? Absolutely. Everyday you do your best.

What are you producing throughout the year?

KS: We create 152 different types of candies and chocolates throughout the year. We want them to taste like what people fell in love with. We have the recipes that came with the business, that Rhéo Thompson learned how to make from the original owner, and we also have multiple generations who know our flavours.

Around St. Patrick’s Day, we make ‘Irish Potatoes,’ which have a butter cream centre that’s allowed to develop a little bit of a skin, which then gets pressed down and rolled in fresh cinnamon — so they look like little potatoes. Those who know them, love them.

What fuels your creativity?

KS: The fuel for creativity, or the passion for your business, has to come from a desire to do the best, to seek out and respect what other people are doing.

Mark and the team can be creative to a degree, but they have to be consistent. We want that consistency in the recipes and the methods we use. A batch of candy may take an hour to make, but throughout that process, they’re checking to make sure the symmetry of the product is there and it has the right aesthetic.

What fuels us is respect for the product, and respect for the customers. We want them to have the best we can offer, and know that we’re meeting expectations. If you have exceptional customer service and a mediocre product… or the opposite, great products and mediocre customer service, you won’t have repeat customers in either scenario. So we work hard to share the pride that we have in the company and what it is that we’re actually doing. Anytime customers send us a story it’s shared with the staff, because I want them to know the impact they have. We have no idea how our product touches people, and with the product that we make, it could be easy to lose sight of that.

Mint Smoothies are 85% of what we create, but the important things that we can never lose sight of, is who are enjoying our chocolates and what effect they may have on people. Flavour has such an effect on people. We hear about customers sending them all around the world — Afghanistan, Australian, and New Zealand and to all sorts of other destinations where Canadians are staying, because it’s not Easter or Christmas unless they get their Mint Smoothie.

It’s like having a family gathering and there’s that dish, whether it’s an appetizer or main course that’s significant for your family. It’s not the same unless that dish is served. In the culinary world, there are constantly new unique and wild ideas — which is fantastic — but we stick with a traditional flavour because we’re hitting another part that is so important.

What do you think that women bring to the culinary business?

KS: I think women bring another perspective. Mark and I are very different, and we’re a complement in that sense. He’s about the micro and I’m about the macro.

If I just kind of do a quick walk about Stratford, looking at where a husband and wife are in the business together, I think I’d find that females are more front of house — helping create the ambiance. It’s tempting to say that the nature of women tends to be a little more empathetic and driven to help create a different connection with others, but I’m careful about saying that, because I think that men do the same thing. I think that’s the neat part about Stratford, there’s an integration of both men and women, and I value that, and being able to share that.

It sounds like there have been some collaborations…

KS: It’s interesting to be open to all people working together. We’re such a traditional company, but we’re open to doing non-traditional things, if it’s a complement.

We just did a project with Junction 56, where the fellows and I worked to create some new liqueurs. And I also work Karen [Hartwick] at Stratford Tea Leaves. She and I have been doing tea and chocolate pairings, [and we’ve been pairing] beer and chocolate with Black Swan Brewing Co. We also have an apiary we work with to make our nougat, and a Mennonite farm for our maple syrup, and Mapleton’s Organic makes our Mint Smoothie ice cream.

What advice would you offer to other women entrepreneurs — especially those in the culinary world?

KS: I think the best thing is to do what you know, and do it well. Stay focused.

In the first few years, we had to stick with what we knew the business did well, instead of deviating. We’re still here 15 years later, and I think that’s a big part of it. We’re in the business of putting smiles on faces — and we stick with our position.

Also, in the culinary world there are two sides of the business. It’s one thing to create with passion, but running and presenting your business on top of that is not easy. So make sure you have a good team and look after them.

A company is the sum of its parts. We really care for our staff, and our staff care about our customers. They have empathy and a desire to please and help people, and I think that it’s pretty special.


Jessie Votary, Co-Owner/Co-Founder, Red Rabbit

Tell me about your career? Where did you start and what are you doing today?

JV: I own two restaurants [Red Rabbit and Okazu], and I do a lot of administration. I’m pretty much self-made. I was already working in the hospitality business when I went to school for Hospitality Management. I had had some great hands-on experience, especially working under Jocelyn Maurice, back when The Church Restaurant existed. I learned a ton from her. She was amazing. She’s the kind of person that has restaurant in her blood, and in her bones. I think that maybe I had some of that naturally, but she really cultivated it.

There are people who can walk into a restaurant and see everything — not just the food, but the temperature and the music, just everything. They take it all in. Her attention to detail, and her interest in doing it right every time, to have integrity of product and service, and to always be paying attention and knowing that ‘good enough,’ actually isn’t good enough, and that you should be striving for excellence — she really instilled that in me.

How did The Red Rabbit start?

JV: Essentially the restaurant was built from nothing, in a space that used to be a bridal shop. The chefs and servers and I threw our money into a hat and built the restaurant off of our own passions. Owning the business ourselves has allowed us the freedom to use whatever suppliers we want, including using local artisan products without having to fit into a corporate structure. The chefs have a lot of creative freedom.

Where does the name, The Red Rabbit, come from?

JV: It’s an old story from the Church Restaurant. Back then it was decorated with a variety of animal tchotchkes, and there was a steel red rabbit figurine. One day, someone in the front of house had had enough of the chef’s attitude, and hid the red rabbit on the chef’s station…

You never knew what could have happened. He could have gotten angry and blown up. But the chef didn’t say anything, he just quietly moved the red rabbit to the front of house, and this continued, back and forth. Even in a world where the two parties may not have agreed on anything else, the red rabbit became a symbol of camaraderie between front and back of house.

The name of our restaurant, The Red Rabbit, is meant to speak to the history of Stratford, and the way that we’re a bit cheeky and fun too. It’s a nod to the side of the industry that’s fun and jovial.

What do you want Red Rabbit to be known for?

JV: There are different things that I want it to be known for, the first of which is food and beverage related: at the very bare bones of it we want to be known for really tasty food, made with quality ingredients and care, and the same goes for our beverages. Our wine is sourced locally.

We want to be known for our passion and integrity. We serve whatever we feel like eating, with a thousand and one influences ranging from classic French, Italian and Asian food. But truly, our food is known for its big, full flavours.

The other thing that I’d want the restaurant to be known for relates the business side. We have a worker-owned model. A big part of our philosophy is that I’d love to change the face of small business to some degree, to show it doesn’t have to be one person at the top making all the money and taking all the risk, as well as making money off of the backs of people below. We pay higher than normal wages and we also offer benefits, which is rare in the restaurant industry. We also have year-round employment. Even though we may lose a huge profit margin by keeping people employed all winter, ultimately, we want them to be able to buy homes and apply for mortgages, and feel otherwise financially secure.

Being able to create a space where restaurant workers can be real humans with real jobs — that’s on a par with the food philosophy.

Tell me about your involvement in the community.

JV: We’re very community oriented. I’m on the BIA board, we participate in a variety of different ways, whether that’s donating things or participating in food-related events for fundraising. For instance, we’ve supported Lawn Summer Nights for Cystic Fibrosis.

Being a woman in business, and a young woman, is an interesting dynamic, particularly in a town like Stratford where there are a lot of older males in the industry. I think that we’re sometimes considered to be an upstart that’s rocking the boat, and I kind of like that. If everybody likes you — you’re probably doing it wrong. I think that it’s important for young women to be impacting the restaurant business.

What’s your approach?

JV: Having humour about it is good, you can’t take yourself too seriously, but at the same time you need to take it seriously. You know that you’re facing [that] and psych yourself up for it and don’t be surprised. You cultivate different responses that become a go-to wording, and that just comes with time and interacting with people. Sometimes it’s harder. You get a large number of them in a row and you get frustrated and it’s harder to have the appropriate come-back without being snarky.

As a person, I always want to know the why behind how things are done. So, I treat my staff like I would like to be treated. I don’t give them a set of rules, as much as the philosophies of why we do things the way we do. Why we make the decisions we do, why the glass goes in a particular space. The reason behind it.

Do you have advice to other female entrepreneurs?

JV: You have to really build up a hard exterior. Prepare for disappointment, but be unrelenting. Prepare yourself to hear ‘no’ too many times. But if someone asks you for more information about your business plan or idea, or asks you to fill out paperwork — be prepared to follow through and do it. Be willing to do the work.

Women have resilience and an ability to keep going, even when it’s kind of difficult or frustrating. We can even dig into that, and draw [strength] from it. Women also tend to have a nurturing side, and when they’re at the helm, they tend to be able to balance driving the business with having compassion for the people who depend on them. It’s so important for women not to crush that when they find themselves in positions of power. Sometimes we’re encouraged to be more like men, but resist that.

What do you love about being in Stratford?

JV: I was born and raised here, and I think the city is amazing. When guests tell me that they’re thinking of moving here I tell them everything about it!

It’s where cosmopolitan city life meets small town intimacy. It has two very distinct seasons. The summer is bustling, we have world-class theatre and music and all these wonderful events that happen here. Then in the winter everything quiets down and you see more familiar faces, you drink more wine and read more books. It’s so nice to have that duality: to have great restaurants and bustling nightlife, but then also to be able to take a step back, to spend less, and take more time with your family.


Jacqueline Barr, C0-owner, Candy Barr’s

Tell me about your career path — how did you start out in the culinary industry and arrive at where you are today?

JB: My husband and I have had our business now for 15 years, we are 50/50 owners and operators here and work seven days a week most of the time. I started out working in a restaurant when I was 13, bussing tables, setting up table-side service carts, etc. at Krebs in Waterloo.

From there I bartended when I turned 18. When it came time to pick a college or university I went to university for Geography. I didn’t like the hands-off nature of university, and decided to go for hotel and restaurant management — a three-year program at Canadore College in North Bay. That program got me jobs in Alberta — I worked one summer at Jasper Park Lodge and almost two years in Kananaskis — that taught me hustle and professionalism. I came home and decided to take it easier and just work at a chain restaurant and became front- and then back-of-house assistant manager. Met my husband and moved to Stratford. I love Stratford, and worked in a local pub until we opened our chocolate shop in the fall of 2003.

Tell me about Chocolate Barr’s.

JB: The best part of owning my own business is that is is in my hands — I don’t have to listen or worry about anyone, other than ourselves. And working as hard as we can to make something great. I can be creative in the way I decorate the store — choose the giftware that comes with the chocolates, and experiment with different chocolate items. I have made my own line of Jack’s Bars that have different toppings, for example. The most popular one is a 70% dark chocolate bar with salt, pepper, almond butter crunch, and pecans. Four years ago we purchased and renovated our own building, and I got to put my stamp on it design-wise, [including] the flow of the storefront, the extra large window into the back to see the candy-making, and the ‘Sweet’ sign that lights up the front.

I was lucky to have met someone with a set of skills that is not taught anywhere in Canada. You’d have to go to Europe or to the States to learn even half of what Derek has been taught, and picked up on his own. To try to do what we do, you either have to buy it from someone, or work your butt off in a culinary school that might teach a bit of chocolate making/pastry making. There are rare times off, [limited] holidays, benefits, and sleep, at certain times of the year. It is not for the faint of heart to run your own business. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What fuels me forward? The calendar! The holidays come at us fast and furious, and if we don’t have what people are looking for, then we might as well close. We really want to do our best, and offer delicious creations.

Fifteen years in business is pretty good in a small city that has competition, and a slower winter time. Our busiest time is Christmas, then Easter, Thanksgiving, and I would say Valentine’s Day comes in last. I like to let our products and service speak for itself. My husband, Derek, will talk your ear off in the store about chocolate and candy. My staff is the best, and we couldn’t do it without them. My favourite time of the day is when we are closed and I can turn the music up and design a new display, or stay and have a beer with our candymakers, and when I get home to my three dogs.

What has it been like to be a woman in the industry? Are there opportunities and challenges that affect females? Have you had any influential female role models?

JB: I have never thought of the ‘woman’ being anything, other than the fact most people only see my husband as the owner. He always corrects this line of thinking. We are partners. I often let him be ‘the face’ though, because I am not a spotlight seeker. The people who I admire the most are my closest friends — they all have three or four kids, and for the most part run their own businesses that they have also started. They make it look easy.

Do you have advice to other women who are thinking of launching a career like yours?

JB: Owning your own business is very rewarding, but not for anyone who thinks it is easy. It is a seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year worry. With a regular job you can walk away at the end of the day and not think about it again until you arrive at work the next day. It is not going to be handed to you on a silver platter. But when you get it right, you can be proud.








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.