Female Founder: (December) Stephanie Soulis

On the first Tuesday of every month, we’ll announce a new Female Founder, including a video interview of them sharing their business story. Want to be featured as a Female Founder? Contact Heather Hutchings for more details. The Female Founders Program would not be possible without our Title Sponsor, Scotiabank.

To learn a little more about the Scotiabank Women Initiative, and why they’ve chosen to sponsor this program, see the video below.

The next Female Founder we’re featuring is Stephanie Soulis, President & CEO of Little Mushroom Catering

Stephanie Soulis is the founder & CEO of Little Mushroom Catering & Dining Lounge in Cambridge. Stephanie and her company have won numerous Business Excellence Awards, including the Young Entrepreneur Award, Sustainability Award, Service Excellence in Hospitality, and the 2019 Small Business of the Year Award. In 2015, she was inducted into the Waterloo Region Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.

Stephanie currently sits on the Board of Directors for Libro Credit Union, and is Chair of the Hospitality Program Advisory Committee for Conestoga College. Stephanie was on the Kitchener Public Library board for 9 years, Chairing for 3 years. She has served on the Waterloo Region Tourism Board, the Greater K-W Chamber of Commerce Board, the Culinary PAC at Conestoga and chaired the Foodlink Waterloo Region board. Stephanie was also part of the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable and now acts as an advisor. 

Stephanie spends a lot of her volunteer time speaking to grade 7-12 students about entrepreneurship through both Junior Achievement and the Business Education Partnership.

Stephanie is a certified living wage employer who is passionate about being a values based business owner. She is often called on as an industry expert and disruptor in the hospitality sector and is a sought after public speaker. In 2020, she spoke at the Restaurants Canada show, and has had several occasions to speak across the province and for organizations within Waterloo Region. 

Steph is an oenophile, a world traveler, mom of three teens, and a karaoke enthusiast. She enjoys strategic board games, Jeopardy, reading Canadian fiction, and discovering new places and foods. 

To learn more about Stephanie and her journey as a Female Founder, watch the interview below (or read the written format).

Tell us a little bit about your business.

I started Little Mushroom in 2010 as a natural extension to what I loved to do in life. I had worked a bunch of other jobs and kept going back to restaurants to catering. I love making people happy with food. So, Little Mushroom started as a catering company, we still are very much a full-service event catering company, but we also have a dining lounge attached to our headquarters that is kind of like a wine bar, but we also do branch and high tea on Sundays.

Where did your business idea come from?

The idea behind the name Little Mushroom actually came to me in a dream. I hate mushrooms let’s just we’ll put it out there… But it’s been really great for marketing because people remember me as the mushroom company that hates mushrooms. We actually use very little mushroom in any of our catering so that works well with the name as well we do definitely have things like you know risotto stuffed mushroom caps as one of our options, but we often get asked at trade shows if everything that we make has mushrooms in it and it absolutely does not because then I wouldn’t eat what we make.

What were you doing before you started your business?

Prior to opening Little Mushroom I was both running a children’s camp that taught kids how to cook it’s called Summer Chief School. I was a program coordinator and through that I actually got a really amazing culinary education because every week was a little bit different we had local chefs come in and teach the kids, we were doing foods from around the world so if you have a look at our menus at little mushroom it’s very much fusion, we bring in from all different cultures and yeah so Summer Chef School was sort of my summer gig and then during the year I was working at a restaurant that no longer exists called Art Bar and it was in the Center in the Square and we catered to a lot of like the symphony and arts crowd and so when I knew that Art Bar was going to be closing its doors unfortunately I took all of those contacts that I had and was able to kind of hit the ground running with the catering company.

Our very first gig was on September 17th I believe my last day working for someone else was September 5th, but we did an art gallery opening as our very first gig so it’s a pretty good first gig to have.

How many employees do you have on your team?

I have a team right now of about 43, last year we had I think it we got up to 59 staff because of all the off-site kitchens that we were running – we’ve really focused back on full-service event catering again this year which keeps me sane. My role now in the company is really Business Development Strategy. I hop in when people call in sick, I can do pretty much every job in the company except for baking – I am a horrible cake decorator but I have fantastic staff who work for me and some of which who have been with me for almost a decade now and yeah so, I’m not often in the kitchen unless I really want to be.

What are some of highlights of your entrepreneurial journey?

Little Mushroom has grown, it’s been really important to me to keep us centered and how we do that is through a model of sustainability. so once upon a time I went to University to become a history and geography teacher (I am not a history or geography teacher) but I am married to a history teacher so I really understand my partner’s job very well, but in studying history we learned the sustainability model around the triple bottom line and so through Little Mushroom we really try to focus on a balanced approach to people planet and profit.

Obviously we’re a business first, profit has to be there in order for us to be able to do things to take care of our planet and take care of our people, but very much our focus in how we’re different – our differentiating factor if you will is that our people are so important to us and we do a lot of things in the community as well, so not just the people who work for us but our clients and the community – the Waterloo Region community, but then also the planet so we try to be the most environmentally sustainable catering company in the region.

What does sustainability mean to you?

Stewardship has always been really important to me we’re you know we’re blessed in this region with fantastic farmers you know we have a lot, we’re the food basket of Ontario you know if you go down to Norfolk – there it’s the Ontario’s Garden area and so all around here we have wonderful land that we’re able to grow fantastic food on and that food tastes better than stuff that’s been sitting on a truck for three days coming from Argentina. That doesn’t mean we don’t use lemons and limes, doesn’t mean that we don’t have asparagus occasionally on the menu when it’s offseason or strawberries for example avocados – I love my guacamole you know we do use some of that but we’re actually part of a program called Feast On. We have our Feast On certification through the Ontario Culinary Alliance and so we submit our receipts for all of the food that we purchase all of the alcohol that we purchase we submit our receipts every year to The Culinary Tourism Alliance program to keep up our Feast On certification. We’re at about 50% of the ingredients that we use are locally sourced, like locally made, locally farmed, locally grown and I think we’re at about 90% of the alcohol that we bring in and sell is from Ontario.

Tell us about your recognition and affiliations?

I’m a bit of a recognition junkie, so for example you know I’m a female founder with the Greater KW Chamber of Commerce. We were the Small Business of the Year for 10 to 50 employees I think that was 2019. Twice now we’ve won the Service Excellence award in Hospitality and Tourism once back in 2014 when we were a very new company and I think I only had seven staff at that point, and then again in 2021 during the pandemic so we’re very proud of those. The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce has also awarded us some things so I was a young entrepreneur there a few years ago (I’m a little bit older now), but we’ve also won a Sustainability Award through them and the Small Business Award as well.

One of our greatest achievements is Food Awards Ontario awarded us the #1 Cater in Ontario in 2019 we were on quite a roll that year, you know fantastic revenues, great profit. I was at the point where I was traveling most of the year because I didn’t need to be there to make my business run and then covid hit and 2020 kind of put us back a little bit so we’re back on the road to recovery and things are going very well now again, but that was a hiccup for sure after a really fantastic year.

What are some of the challenges your business has faced?

We’ve been on a growth trajectory basically since day one. Our first few years in business we were doubling in size every year growing exponentially. I think it was 2012 I bought a cookie company that was kind of complimentary to our business, but growth growth growth! Lots of growing pains when you are growing which includes building out new kitchens so we’re actually on Kitchen #6 we’ve had to move over the last 13 years… now six times, but we are hopefully in our forever home. Maybe my staff think that we’re in our forever home so if they’re watching this that might not be the truth of the matter because I have plans.

Back in the beginning of 2020 we were building out our new kitchen space, so we took three units of warehouse space and I was able to work with an architect to manage the flow of that space, but with it came you know big dollar signs and we’re in about 7200 square feet of mostly kitchen space but also our dining lounge and our offices. It’s been great because we do have that you know if you’re in the food industry, we have the flow of you know kind of where things begin and where things end and it’s really great for all of our staff.

We moved in February 20th, 2020 and on March 14th of 2020 I had to lay off all but four of my staff because we weren’t sure how long it was going to take hopefully I we were we were hopeful that it was only going to be a couple months and actually in June I brought back most of my staff at that point though some of them had already decided to just leave the industry completely, some went into the trades, I had some who went into long-term care facilities to cook there because it was guaranteed and it was a really tough time and we really had to rebuild our team over the last couple of years because a lot of our long-term staff didn’t make it through all of the shutdowns.

Knowing what you know now, is there anything you’d do differently?

One big challenge that we had over the past year was we had started a partnership. I’ll say one of our Covid pivots was we became kitchen mercenaries basically so while we had the catering side of things, we had our dining lounge. We also ran restaurant kitchens for seven other locations and in doing that, that meant that I had to have seven managers at each of those locations and it was a really big struggle to try and manage those locations because you know some of them there was a wine bar in Uptown Waterloo we have a fantastic relationship with them still, but there you know if the chef called in sick I had four other people who were trained to do that job but they were already busy doing other positions in the company, so trying to fill in those gaps I was often the one who had to go and fill in or our director of off-site food services had to go and instead of you know being the manager of the managers she was having to go and cook or clean or you know whatever it might be.

But with that process we had  entered a partnership that ended up dissolving because our partner decided to close their space without any warning and so Christmas Eve we were open and closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day my staff went to go into the venue on December 27th and the code had been changed and the lock had been changed and we no longer had a business there and it meant that over Christmas holidays I had to let five of my staff go because I didn’t have a job for them and we were completely blindsided. I would always even with a contract in place, even with a partnership that you think is good trying to protect against things that could happen when you do go into partnerships with other businesses that was definitely a learning curve for me.

What helped grow your business?

I’ve often been called a queen of networking. I love people I love to be out at events it’s my happy place. I think that Ian Mclean once pegged me as one of the most involved people in the KW Chamber of Commerce. I there’s others who will rival me but I’m pretty involved  and through the Chambers of Commerce through um just yeah through Community involvement one big thing that I do um to help grow my business that I’m really forward thinking is that I’m part of the Business Education Partnership – so I go and speak to high school students about the food industry, food service industry, catering restaurants, and different jobs that are different things that could be careers that are all involved around the food service industry and so I’m thinking long-term there you know I’ve already put my name in in their heads, so when they go out looking for jobs you know they can they know that they can come and see me.

But also when it comes to point where they want to get married or they’re working in a in a corporate job for a tech company or something and you know they they’ll go:

“Oh yeah we should use little mushroom.” I’m planting those seeds early.

What’s your meaning of success?

When I speak with the Business Education Partnership, and I go into these you know careers classes or business classes I often will have the students help to find success and what it always comes down to is happiness. Are you happy in your job? I don’t want any of my staff coming into work and hating their days that’s absolutely not what we want so yeah success to me is it’s not about money necessarily it’s about comfort and security, but ultimately, it’s about being happy and joyful in your work.

What are some of the pillars of your business?

Going back to the triple bottom line part of our business, you know it really comes down to how do we work together as a team? How do we have the best food Integrity? The best ethical Integrity, how are we looking after everyone who’s involved in the process? Are we paying our farmers a fair amount for our ingredients? Are we charging a fair amount to our clients? Where can we help each other out and how can we help our venues get more events happening there? How can we partner with people, collaborate, and make the whole community a better place?

What are some of the techniques you use to recruit talent?

So, I got to cheat a little bit I’d say when it comes to human resources. About a year and a half ago I hired my older sister on to our team and she is an HR Guru. The things that she has done for our team to help us grow and really make everyone feel like they’re coming into a warm welcoming place. One of the things that we’ve implemented in the last year and a half since she’s been with us is we also have a fantastic HR assistant… she’s just with us part-time but during the summer we had her full-time as a co-op student and the two of them with some guidance from me have been able to put together what we like to call our Mush Love Gratitude and Gravy Program. You know anything that’s kind of a perk you call it gravy right? It’s like all that in a bag of chips.

Some of our perks that we have for our staff that are often unheard of in the food service industry… we do is we are a living wage employer so we’re certified through the Ontario Living Wage Network, which means that all of our staff you know kind of have a base salary they get tips on top of that – we do a controlled tip pooling, so everyone from our dishwasher to our baker gets to see some of that tip money even though they’re not out at the events themselves and so between being a living wage employer we’re also part of the better way alliance of ethical employers which is a Canadian-wide association where we do paid sick days we have flexible work hours where we actually work with each of our staff individually to try and create a shift setup for them, so that they’re helping the needs of the business when we need them to work, but at the same time they’re able to achieve work life balance.

What are some of the benefits of establishing a business in the Waterloo Region?

Waterloo Region really has that small town feel while having big city amenities, it’s very split up you know if you go to some place like London, Ontario you’ve got that main core downtown here we have like six downtowns seven or eight if you count Elmira and St. Jacobs, which I love (those areas) don’t get me wrong, their downtowns just are you know that’s that much smaller but definitely like within Waterloo Region you get to know companies you get to know people there’s a good sense of collaboration that you wouldn’t have in a big city like Toronto, but at the same time we have access to everything that we need here.

What motivates you?

My goal with Little Mushroom is to flip the script on the food service industry you know, and I worked in restaurants for years it’s the restaurant industry is known for long hours, bad pay, sexual harassment, discrimination – you name it like anything bad in the world it’s happened in a restaurant at least behind the scenes.

I went through my own struggles with that being a woman in the restaurant industry where you know I was afraid to go into a walk-in fridge at work because sometimes one of my co-worker men would follow me so that they could touch me inappropriately or you know there’s so many stories out there and anyone who has worked in a restaurant probably has a dozen of them, and so I wanted to build a business where women felt safe, where people from the LGBTQ+ community felt safe where people of different races, different religions, different sexual orientations – I want to be a safe space for those people to work and thrive.

What advice would you give to other aspiring business owners?

If you are at that point in your life where you want to start a business make sure that you know yourself, make sure that you know your values, and in everything that you do with whatever business it might be – make sure that your values shine through what you do.

What are your future plans?

We have at Little Mushroom Catering really grown pivoted… I hate that word; we like to use the word swivel like a swivel chair, we’ve swiveled thanks to you know the pandemic and other things that have changed in our industry. One of the things that I really want to make sure that we’re doing as we go forward is refocusing. I think is the best the sort of our three-to-five-year plan is to refocus on the full service event catering side of things it’s what we do best it’s our kind of our sweet spot as opposed to you know we turn down contracts all the time for things like being a cafeteria within a business or doing.

We’re not a takeout restaurant that’s not what we do, we don’t want to be on Skip the Dishes or Door Dash or anything like that. We don’t want to be doing lunches for three people at a law firm right that’s not what we do, but if you have 40 people in your business and you want us to come in with a hot lunch buffet we’ll do that if you want us to do an Awards Banquet, if you want us to do a Christmas party if you want us to do a wedding, that’s really where we shine because we’re not just a product we’re a product and a service and so refocusing on that you know we’ve taken out all of those off-site food service things that we were doing. We’re not kitchen mercenaries anymore you know we don’t do freezer meals anymore that we were doing through Covid19.

Tell us more about the certification?

B-Corp certification is all about being a business for good, it’s everything to do with governance, how we run our business, who we’re accountable, how we’re being environmentally friendly, how we’re being socially responsible, all of those pieces come into play and are judged and scored accordingly. If we reach a certain point then we get that B-Corp certification and for me that’s showing our clients and our staff and our community that we are a business for good and that we’re not just talking the talk or walking the walk.

What are your current goals?

We’re going to keep doing what we do best, so that full surface event catering, being Innovative, being creative with what we do, making sure that we’re doing the best things that we can for our people, for the planet, but then also that profit piece you know we’re in business comes back to that we’re looking at efficiencies how can we be more efficient? How can we cut costs without cutting the quality and the Integrity of our product and our service?

What does your menu look like?

I think our menu right now has over 700 items so there is a lot of choice. Sometimes it can be very overwhelming, but that’s because we cater for corporate, we cater for weddings, we cater hot lunches, cold lunches, buffets plated, we do the fancy plated meals as well if you’re looking for like a six-course tasting menu. Our menus are extensive and there’s a lot happening there.

My specialty and what I often will hop in the kitchen to do, I love cooking Indian food so I make fantastic butter chicken, saag paneer they always pull me in to make the samosas, chutney we have amazing chutneys that we’ve been making the same recipes for 12 years now and so that’s really where I shine. that and soup, whether it’s a mulligatawny soup, or a creamy harvest soup. I love making soups.

We want to make sure that we we’re catering to everyone in the community.

Where can we find out more about your business or connect with you directly?

We are all over social media. I have a fantastic marketing associate who has worked for me for two years now, you can find us on Instagram. You can find me personally on Instagram or Twitter as @cateringfungi, but otherwise you can follow littlemushroomcatering or littlemushroomdininglounge.

Please follow us both places we love it they’re very different accounts, we’re also on Facebook – we haven’t gotten into Tik-Tok, but that may come so I just have to get better at dance moves.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.