"I love talking food, I love the community and bringing people together through food–and I love that each day is different!
There are challenges. I mean this business is not for the faint of heart. "
Director of Communications
As I enter Savoury City Custom Catering, Donna Wadsworth (affectionately but accurately referred to as the Head Honcho), is nowhere to be seen. I can hear her disembodied voice in the hallway, suggesting that she is everywhere and nowhere at once. It’s an apt description, as being the owner of one of the best-loved custom catering businesses in Vancouver requires a certain omnipresence–something that Donna has perfected over the last 30 odd years! After a few minutes, the Head Honcho glides into the room ready to chat about her ascendancy in the custom catering world.
I started a business in Toronto when I was younger. My brother and I made these great handmade, authentic Italian desserts. Great old-school Crostata di Ricotta and a line of Italian cookies. It was really pure interesting food, but after two years, we both realized we hated sugar! Everyone said, “go big or go home.” So we decided to go home.
So, after you moved on from desserts, what did you do?
Well, after we closed shop, I went to school and took Russian Literature. I realized there wasn’t much of a job market for that, so I worked in the Arctic for 3 years, but the focus always came back to food. Even in the Arctic, the focus always came back to that! The people I was hanging out with were chefs–there was a limited menu, but I wanted to know what the chefs were doing. After my time in the Arctic, I worked my way into some really great restaurants in Toronto and learned all about food. One of my first great jobs was with an amazing catering company. I loved that I was doing something different every day; every event was different. It’s crazy, involved, exhaustingly busy, but I loved the planning, the logistics, and the social aspect. I just thought, oh my God, this is amazing!
What brought you out to Vancouver?
I got a job as executive chef at another catering company and I thought I had died and gone to heaven! The woman who owned it was at the top of her game. She was all about the food. It was remarkable. However, I eventually opened my own business because I was burnt out by cooking. I loved food and so I needed to find a way to incorporate that into a new venture. The question was ‘how can I turn this into something else?’
What was your first food-related venture?
I started out with gourmet frozen entrees delivered. I did dishes like Lamb Tagine and Braised Lamb Shanks. We had about 42 items, but delivering all over God’s green acres! Honestly, I was about 10 minutes from bankruptcy. I was a bit desperate and asking myself ‘what are you gonna do!?’
What did you do?
I didn’t really want to work for someone else and people kept asking me to cater for them, so I decided to close the frozen gourmet business and start custom catering. It’s been 15 years now! I love talking food, I love the community and bringing people together through food–and I love that each day is different! There are challenges. I mean this business is not for the faint of heart. I’m constantly learning new things, seeking to improve. You can’t be idle but there is an excitement to that.
As a woman who owns her own business, what advice do you have for other women thinking about starting their own entrepreneurial ventures?
Seek advice. I’ve had a mentor since the early 80’s, when I joined the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWO). My mentor helped me open doors that I didn’t even know existed, and provided me with so much sage advice! They helped me with everything from HR to PR and marketing.
So, mentorship was key for you?
I think that typically women approach business differently than men. We are good listeners, and for the most part, we aren’t afraid or too proud to seek advice. I still have a mentor who I talk to and ask advice. I have to say that organizations like WFE and WPO (Women Presidents’ Organization) were instrumental in not only getting my business off the ground but sustaining it as well. I can’t rave about it enough! At this point in my life and business, these organizations are not so much about getting referrals, but more about community. We talk about our challenges as women in business, and we bring in great speakers that come in and inspire and enlighten. We talk about the barriers–and a lot of us have faced them. The glass ceiling and learning to navigate the business world are real challenges. It’s a great group of women who are powerful and empowering leaders.
Just as we were wrapping up, one of Donna’s assistants poked her head in the room asking her to take a call. She jumped up energetically and was already down the hall engaged in three conversations at once! The Head Honcho was in her element!
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