Stephanie Soulis, CEO of Little Mushroom Catering
Little Mushroom Catering Focuses on Triple Bottom line
by Exchange Staff
For the last decade, Stephanie Soulis, CEO of Little Mushroom Catering, has been building one of the most prominent catering companies in Ontario, Canada, and she’s certainly not done yet. This entrepreneur/food lover has grown her business from the ground up. Her strategy has included acquiring businesses along the way, leveraging others that are closing their doors, and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. She has not been afraid to take the step, and in some cases, deal with the short-term pain.
The young CEO has created a business atmosphere that values people as colleagues and valued stakeholders. Her position on everything from providing a living wage, to concern for the environment and making a difference for those in need, demonstrates the integrity of this genuine and caring individual.
And in business terms, it's all paid off. Soulis attributes her success to her personal values. Personal values are “one of the greatest things about being an entrepreneur. You get to run your business based on your values. I've been able to implement so many policies and procedures – just the general culture here, where we keep sustainability at the heart of everything we do.”
She says, “The people thing is really important. We are the only food service company that is ‘Living Wage’ in Waterloo Region. We are certified through ‘Living Wage Ontario’. We're trying to be an industry disrupter, and we've been certified as providing a living wage for the last two years.”
Soulis explains why this is so important to her: “I have worked in the restaurant business since I was 16. Most of my staff have grown up through the restaurant business, and then they come to me when they realize they’ve been abused. It’s a safe haven.”
This year has been an exceptional twelve months for the one-time geography teacher turned entrepreneur. Not only did she achieve precedent-setting accolades in her own backyards of Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo, in July of this year, she was recognized by Food Awards Ontario as Caterer of the Year.
In the nine-plus years she has been in business, Soulis has operated Little Mushroom in Waterloo, then Kitchener, and now Cambridge – each move marking a significant milestone. She started the business out of a home in Waterloo, expanded into a Kitchener facility for four years and then, when space again became an issue, she moved to her present 3600 square foot space in Cambridge.
But Little Mushroom has outgrown that, too, and in early 2020, the caterer will move to a 7,000 square foot space on Sheldon Drive in Cambridge.
Soulis says, “Cambridge has been very welcoming to us, the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce has been fantastic. They have not only welcomed us as a business partner in the community, but have also given us lots of great recognition. We've received three business excellence awards from Cambridge, for sustainability, young entrepreneur and this year we won both the small business of the year award in Cambridge and in KW. I believe we are the first to ever do that.”
The energetic CEO operates her catering business with 45 staff. Little Mushroom has a dedicated internal training and development program for on-location staff. This includes an extensive two-day manager’s retreat every summer. Soulis is the first caterer to pay employees a living wage, and the first to sign onto Feast On, through the Culinary Tourism Alliance of Ontario. Soulis explains that “we submit our receipts to a third party, to ensure that we are buying a certain percentage of locally farmed ingredients, so that when we say we buy local, we mean it.”
Soulis has grown her business by being ready to seize opportunities – even if she wasn’t enthusiastic about some of them, at first. She admits that, “When I started the business, I did not want to cater any weddings.” But couples planning receptions started coming her way, and Little Mushroom now caters over 80 weddings a year!
In typical Soulis fashion, she decided that if she was going to do weddings, she was going to do them right, so she employs three WPIC-certified wedding planners. She says, “They not only help the couple plan their wedding menu, but also their entire weddings. Wedding coordination services is something that we have that most other caterers don't.”
Soulis adds that all members of the event staff are employees, not temps. “Servers and bartenders are trained by us, they’re our own, they know what our values are, and they are on board, 100%.”
Not surprisingly, says Soulis, “Our wedding business has taken off.”
But then, so has every aspect of the Little Mushroom Catering portfolio. In total, Soulis’ team does about 700 corporate and private events a year, ranging from conferences and client appreciation events to staff dinners.
When they move to their new space, Little Mushroom Catering will include an executive dining lounge. “We want to be open for lunches, for afternoon meetings, for happy hour. If you want to bring your staff for a drink after work, and have some sharable snacks, we'll be there for you.” It will offer an upscale quiet space for business lunches and will also have buy-outs available for seminars.
The new facility will also include an improved kitchen, with much more fridge and freezer space. They will continue to operate a full-service bakery, which Soulis acquired when she purchased Nom Nom Treats and added that company’s service to Little Mushroom over five years ago. She says it is unusual for a catering company to also have a bakery; it allows her to offer everything from sugar cookies bearing a corporate brand to tiered wedding cakes to gluten-free mini doughnuts, and much more.
To Soulis, every part of the business chain is important – from ethical suppliers to happy customers. She buys locally, as evidenced by her Feast On designation – and she’s proud to be the only Waterloo Region caterer with that qualification. She says, “Since Day One, we have been purchasing our meat from Oakridge Acres, a family farm in Ayr.” Oakridge produces Black Angus beef and bison, and also supplies chicken, duck and rabbit from other local farmers. Soulis also buys from local foodservice icon Flanagan’s, a Feast On purveyor.
When the restaurant opens in the new Little Mushroom facility in 2020, Soulis says, “we want to continue that focus on local, so our plan is for the wine list, for the beer menu, for the spirits, to be using all Ontario products. We recently switched over our coffee to Settlement Coffee Roasters, so as much as we can't get our beans here, we can get them roasted here – and they’re fair trade.”
Soulis believes in a triple-bottom-line approach to business – focused on “planet, profit and people.” But as a WLU Geography alumni, she admits that she is only comfortable with the “profit” piece if that involves being environmentally ethical with an emphasis on sustainability. She says, “We need to make sure that we are being fiscally responsible, but at the same time we are also looking into what kind of compostable containers we can use. We really try to encourage people right now to use re-usables as much as possible. We are always looking at new options, and Flanagans has been a great partner for that as well.”
Little Mushroom has “a full composting and recycling program, both here and when we are on site.” Soulis adds, “As far as I know we are the only caterers in the region who do that.”
The values that Soulis has inculcated into her team are reflected right across the board in the operation. They work hard to limit food waste – always a challenge in the catering business. But Soulis says, “there isn't a tonne left over, but because we keep our food at the proper temperatures, we also donate a lot of food to the House of Friendship men’s hostel and the Bridges.” They recently joined Food Rescue, an organization that matches food donations to those in need.
That’s not Little Mushroom’s only community outreach. Says Soulis, “The staff does group volunteering. Three or four times a year, we'll shut down for the day. We’ve done food sorting at both the KW and Cambridge food banks. We've gone a couple of times to the Gleaners, and helped prep food that gets dehydrated and made into soup mix sent all over the world. We've done gardening at Steckle Heritage farm, and we’ve packed snacks for kids at Nutrition for Learning.”
Little Mushroom Catering does not limit their customer base to Waterloo Region. Soulis is honoured that, “We are Caterer of the Year for 2019 throughout all of Ontario. We cater not only to Waterloo Region, we'll go to London, Woodstock, Hamilton/Burlington area. We've done weddings toward Niagara, we'll go to Collingwood, Kincardine, basically Southern Ontario below Muskoka and West of Toronto proper. We have a two hour rule; we’ll cater anything that reaches our minimum spend within a two hour drive.”
First Published in Exchange Magazine Quarterly Edition Q4-2019