Lesley Stowe has been a fixture on the Vancouver food scene for four decades, as an author, a caterer, a chef, a tireless promoter of fine foods and, for the last seven years, the proprietor of a small manufacturing facility in Richmond that produces a line of highend crackers now available in 4,000 stores across North America.
Lesley Stowe Fine Foods' Raincoast Crisps, might be, after Pacific salmon, British Columbia's most ubiquitous contribution to the North American diet.
Stowe spoke recently about successful brand-building and her decision, after seven years of exclusively marketing crackers, to add a line of designer cookies to the 50-person company's product roster.
Question: How has the economic downturn affected your business, particularly in the U.S.?
Answer: We have no problem with demand. People are being more cautious about how they are spending their money but they still want to treat themselves. It's an easy way to treat yourself on a more regular basis than going and buying a new car. It's your last bastion. You're not going to let go of that.
Q: You started out as a chef in Paris. Did you ever work in a Michelin-starred restaurant?
A: I'm from Vancouver. In my third year of university, in the summer break, I did the backpacking in Europe thing. I spent a day at this [culinary] school in Paris and thought, I have to come back here. I'd always been interested in food, but I'd never considered it as a possible career move.
At the end of the year I spent a couple of months working in a Michelinstar restaurant.
Q: You opened a retail shop for serious foodies at Third and Burrard. How did that evolve into the Raincoast Crisps enterprise?
A: It was a very expensive venture to run because everything was so custom done, and I needed so many employees to actually make this thing work. The economies of scale weren't there.
We [had] developed the crisps for catering. We were selling them in our store. We started selling them in a few other stores.
I thought, I'm going to focus on something, really work at it and try to build it up and use the name that we had built up over the years - Lesley Stowe Fine Foods - to promote the products that I thought could do well.
When we moved to this (Richmond) location, we had to buy equipment and refit the location.
From the financial side I bit off as much as I thought I could chew. Then as the cash flow was coming in we would buy more equipment.
Q: You've advanced beyond the regional market where you had some brand recognition. How did you make the connections?
A: We had very definite ideas about where we wanted the product placed. We didn't want the product to be in the grocery aisle. It had to be in the specialty or deli area because that's where the cheeses are.
It needed to be in an area where people are used to spending money and looking for things for entertaining.
Q: As you've mentioned, you're very careful about not overextending your business. So tell us how cookies fit into that.
A: There is a saturation point as far as the number of flavours you can add to the one line. But I felt, looking at what was out there in the marketplace, that this is going in a different direction.
Although it's still a baked dry good, it's not for entertaining, it's for fuelling.