Chef Lisa Ahier’s SoBo smoked wild salmon chowder has long won over the hearts and bellies of her West Coast community, but it’s yet to be seen if it’ll please the palettes of dragons.
Ahier will be featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s popular Dragons’ Den program on Thursday night, looking to secure an investment that would allow her to branch out and distribute her locally famous chowder through grocery stores across Canada and America.
She said she currently makes about 80 litres of chowder a day and sells it at her popular SoBo Restaurant in Tofino, but it’s all long gone before day’s end, much to the chagrin of local merchants who have been asking to sell it at their stores as well.
“I can’t get it to anybody because I can’t keep it on my own shelves, so good problems to have,” she said adding she’s eyeing Richmond as a location for the facility because it’s close to an airport and trucking routes.
“Obviously we know how hard it is to get a space for a business here in Tofino and beyond that finding workers in Tofino is an impossibility at this point so I don’t think it makes sense to do this venture in Tofino,” she said.
She’s hoping her idea will attract a business partner.
“I don’t want an investor, I want a business partner who knows something about food manufacturing and distribution, because those are not my strong points. My strong points are cooking and flavour profiles, understanding what people want to eat, ethical food buying, those sorts of things,” she said.
She added she has been a longtime “big fan” of the show and had her eyes on a few Dragons she’d like to work with.
The show contacted her in August asking if she’d like to travel to Toronto to film, but she said measures in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus meant she would need to spend over a week away from her restaurant to audition in Toronto, which was not time she could afford. The show offered her a second option, to film remotely in Vancouver, which would only take her out of Tofino for one day and she happily seized it.
“I know that I can’t make the same kind of connection from a remote location staring into a camera, but I can’t be away from my restaurant for 10 days in August,” she explained.
A friend of hers was flying to Toronto around the same time, so she was able to deliver her chowder to the Dragons’ doorstep in time for her televised pitch, adding the show was somewhat surprised that she would trust someone else to heat the chowder up for the Dragons.
“I said, listen, if my frozen soup can’t be heated up backstage at the Dragons’ Den I have no business putting it in a grocery store to go into people’s homes to heat up,” she said. “If it doesn’t work then shame on me for even trying.”
She said she made her smoked wild salmon chowder the focal point of her pitch, despite having about 20 other products ready to go, because it’s her top selling item and a solid reflection of her home.
“I believe that Tofino’s lifeblood is the salmon and I am all about supporting wild salmon and getting rid of fish farms in the ocean…I’m not against on-land fish farms. I know we have to farm seafood, I understand that,” she said. “So, this is me kind of putting my heart on my sleeve saying Tofino is all about salmon.”
While she’s sworn to secrecy regarding whether she left the Den with a deal with a Dragon, she said the experience was so surreal she doesn’t remember much of what went down.
“I don’t even know what to expect to be quite honest because I don’t remember much of it. I think I was just kind of in a trance. I was literally in a dark room looking into the round hole of a camera…I’m going to be just as surprised as everybody else to watch it.”
She did remember though that they treated her fairly, explaining that she was confident her pitch and her chowder would “set them up to be in a happy place.”
“I think they were very nice to me. I find them to be a little intimidating for sure, but I tried to go in prepared and I think that’s half the battle,” she said. “I felt like I was prepared and that there wouldn’t have been any reason for them to be anything but nice to me, besides the fact that normally when you feed somebody first, they’re nice to you….People like food.”
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