Lesley Stowe | BCBusiness
"The truth is," says Lesley Stowe, "we always feel like we're on borrowed time because we have so many copycats, and you can't keep looking at the trophy on the wall."
Seven years ago, Lesley Stowe’s crackers made her a household name; now taste buds across North America are poised for her culinary encore.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Lesley Stowe isn’t having any of it. “It’s great to know we were the originals, but actually it’s a bit frustrating,” she says of the trove of manufacturers riffing off her Raincoast Crisps, the cracker the Vancouver chef launched seven years ago. “Some don’t even think of a different flavour combination or their own style of packaging,” she adds, opening her palms quizzically.
Little wonder that the CEO of Lesley Stowe Fine Foods Ltd. has developed a “healthy paranoia” to keep the Richmond-produced line at the vanguard of the food category she first conjured up during two successful decades in catering.
Seeing her crackers vaunted on Oprah’s “O List” and placed in more than 4,000 stores across North America is not enough for the 54-year-old. “I just keep thinking of all the other places we could be in,” she says. “The truth is, we always feel like we’re on borrowed time because we have so many copycats, and you can’t keep looking at the trophy on the wall. If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.”
Part of that momentum includes dreaming up new products such as a gluten-free alternative of her famous crisps and a “power cookie.” After 30 years in the business, Stowe certainly knows that making profit margins with food is generally challenging. Take negotiating “real-estate” on grocery-chain floors, where manufacturers are often expected to pay for good exposure. When she first entered the market, Stowe “just wasn’t prepared to play that game,” she says, adding that her father, who was in the paper-goods side of groceries, laughed in disbelief at her approach. “But then he told me that ignorance was my greatest asset right now and to go for it,” she recalls. “People usually laugh when I say I am not a risk-taker, but really, it’s always calculated.”
The real kicker came around her launch, when she was invited to be part of a showcase of local fare stocked in Whole Foods, when it first opened in West Vancouver. From there, U.S. interest followed when the Whole Foods chain took over the Wild Oats chain, and other stores took her product on board.
Stowe knows it was a lucky break, but the result fit snugly into an already proven visionary career. A member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, the society for female professionals in the culinary world, Stowe put her training at La Varenne cookery school in Paris to good use for some two decades, running her eponymous catering firm, as well as her groundbreaking fine foods shop in Kitsilano. (It introduced then-exotic, now-ubiquitous items such as artisan breads and aged balsamic vinegars before she closed it to concentrate on the crackers.)
Today, The Lesley Stowe Fine Foods Cookbook author’s discerning palate has us at West restaurant on south Granville Street trying wild B.C. salmon tataki, followed by elderflower-marinated strawberries and rhubarb ice cream to quell her “sweet tooth,” and semolina olive-oil cake to hush mine. At her own west side home, she still loves to cook, although upon returning home after a long day working with her 60-strong team, she may simply slap lamb burgers on the barbecue, whether it’s for eating with her stockbroker husband, Geoffrey, or for entertaining.
However, Stowe doesn’t miss catering “at all,” since getting back her weekends and other conventional time off. Now the family (she is stepmother to two grown-up children) heads either to Whistler, where she is a lifelong skier (her company sponsors the Canadian Ski Jumping team), or to the couple’s new, second home in Palm Springs to improve her golf swing. “We can go for a few days, which works with my comfort level of being away from the business,” she explains.
Art also demands much time. A trustee for the Vancouver Art Gallery, she and her husband collect conceptual photography, and he actually features in a recent piece of work by Vancouver artist Ian Wallace. “We are so fortunate in this city; there is such a huge pool of talent,” Stowe enthuses.
Having studied fine arts at UBC herself, she mentions that a career in design was equally appealing to her. Thankfully for us, the kitchen hooked her first.