Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Rebecca Meir, Co-owner, and Sommelier of Chef & Somm, located in Toronto, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
My business creates memorable and unique dining experiences with multi-course dinners, wine pairings, and table decor. Of course, tasty food and delicious wine are the prerequisites of any food business! But providing extra value - like exposing people to different approaches to food and life - is what I believe constitutes an experience. I know we did our job when clients expressed that they felt like they had changed from before dinner they were inspired, energized, and learned something new that opened their minds.
Our customers are - more often than not - individuals who seek to expose themselves to different approaches to food, wine, decor, and life in general. They want to experience beautiful, artistic food, stylish and customized table decor, an unexpected combination of flavours and platings, and an educational conversation with the Chef and Sommelier about the history/philosophy of ingredients/grapes. These humans want to feel different after dinner, get inspired by the creations they explored, and obviously, have fun!
Tell us about yourself
I worked in restaurants as a Sommelier and Manager for many years. Because I had little time to see my partner [who also worked in restaurants as a chef], we decided to create pop-up dinners every other month to have fun and spend some more time together. These dinners experimented with ingredients and wine pairings, letting people play with their food instead of following norms, traditions, and expectations. We used chocolate as the primary focus ingredient because Chef Liebman is a chocolatier; they incorporated chocolate into each of the 7-courses, blending this delicious ingredient into each savoury dish as I dreamed up wine pairings for each course.
We started to cultivate a group of wonderful, loyal, returning clients who enjoyed the non-conventional/experimental nature of these Chocolate Pop-Up Dinners - they were asking for more! After two years of giving the dinner's profits to charity, we almost became a charity case ourselves [LOL] and decided to turn the idea into a formal business.
I started my own business because of my love of freedom, creativity, and challenges. My business is my life, expression, and reason to wake up in the morning. I love how all the artistic creations come together at every event and the excitement that I can see in my client's eyes when they experience it. But more than everything, I love having my team - my chosen family - a bunch of individuals with unique talents and personalities.
I also started my own company to allow myself and my life partner to be who we are - developing and changing over time without the looming fear of losing our job or not getting promoted. For instance, I am an LGBTQA+ person in a straight/mono normative industry, a woman in a male-dominated wine community, a Jewish person in a Christian-based society, and an immigrant. Therefore, I have often had to be careful not to be too much of who I am - too feminist, too bisexual, etc. - and not show who I am, indeed - a human rights advocate - to my wine clients, many being extreme conservatives!
We openly share our thoughts about social responsibility, racism, trans rights, and other subjects that matter through dialogue about food and wine at the dinner table. We aim to make a difference by conversing about these subjects when people are at their most comfortable - while being spoiled with fabulous decor, delicious food, and wines.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
I survived the pandemic lockdowns as a small company without accumulating debt and kept my team fully employed throughout those challenging times. Overcoming such an obstacle, especially in the food industry, shows resilience and the ability to adapt.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
The hardest thing is staying motivated and active when business is slow. Similar to our journey through life, companies are full of ups and downs, and - to a certain degree - we should accept them. That said, getting too comfortable and not checking to see why it's happening can become a disaster! As a business owner, you always have to be tuned in with the changes around you and try to understand what attracts clients or what makes them hesitate to hire you. There is a constant balance, where I analyze the business from a client's point of view and then come back to see it from the owner's point of view. In this way, I make sure the business makes sense financially while keeping our [enjoyable] business model and unique identity.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
The world is changing so quickly that you must tune in with all the changes happening around you; otherwise, your business won't survive in the long run. It doesn't matter what your company specializes in - hurtles such as technology development, recessions, new laws, client needs that change, and how they all interact is something we all need to be aware of within our field. So you have to be ahead of the game and adjust as soon as possible.
My advice is to view every problem as a challenge rather than an obstacle
overcoming problems is a big part of the job. Sometimes you can fix them on time, and sometimes you can't. But you can always learn from them for the future, becoming better and wiser with every challenge. But don't take too much advice from people around you who don't understand your business model! Everyone has an opinion and wants to express it, but if you take all advice seriously, it will only confuse you or lead to non-relevant directions. If you need ongoing advice, hire a professional coach who will learn your business and guide you. Or, listen to your team - the people living within the industry, day in and day out, alongside you. But even then, remember that no one knows your business and your goals better than you do!
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
One of the most important things for me in business- the heart of my business, you could say - is keeping my company's integrity in line. Beyond the fact that integrity means I can live with myself and sleep well at night, it is also the way to secure returning clients and maintain your reputation.
As a business owner, you have lots of power, and people will test your values frequently. This power can be used to make more money, or it can be used to do good. So day in and day out, I work on figuring out what is important to me, what will make a difference in society, and how to use my power to do good.
Chef & Somm is built on LGBTQA+, immigrants, and indigenous individuals who often "do not belong" in most workplaces. By serving chocolate within a savoury dish (like chocolate pasta) or serving peanut butter sherbet with short ribs, we open people's minds to breaking tradition. When we enjoy things that "do not traditionally belong together" within a meal, perhaps people will also begin to attune their brains to accept other things that "do not traditionally belong" - like people. I aim for a day where people do not bat an eyelash at a non-binary head chef (like my partner), a trans doctor, a black bank manager, a woman carpenter, etc.
If we begin to use our power as business owners to do good in this world, maybe we will start to see a much-needed change in this broken world.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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