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.
With the coronavirus pandemic preventing Ahier from travelling to Toronto to audition in person, her pitch was made remotely from CBC’s Vancouver studio and 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.
“It was pretty wild because I can’t really see them, they’re on a monitor and if I look down at the monitor on the left it looks like I’m staring off into space at the floor, so I had to have my head straight at the camera,” she said. “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 added she had to stay focused and listen carefully as the Dragons spoke.
“There’s a couple times when they’re talking over each other in that earpiece and I was just trying to keep on track,” she said.
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. I think when they’re not as nice per se, they have good reason because they don’t need their time wasted. People need to have their pitch down, they need to know exactly what their product is, they’ve got to know their numbers. You’ve got to do your homework and be prepared or you shouldn’t be standing in front of them,” 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.”
She said she’s been hoping to put her chowder and her other popular soups into stores for several years, but operating a restaurant and being a mom means she hasn’t had time to pursue that dream properly, adding she was even too busy for the Dragons when an audition was held at the Tofino Community Hall several years ago.
“I was so busy in the day to day that I couldn’t even get up there with a bowl of soup and they were right here at our backdoor,” she said.
She almost missed her shot this time around as well, as a rock blasting mishap on Hwy. 4 blocked her first attempt to get to Victoria for a March 7 audition this year.
“It was a hard thing to get to because that day there was a dynamite blast that went awry on the pass and I waited for probably seven hours trying to get down to Victoria and then it was too late for me to drive, so I had to turn around and go home,” she said. “I got up at 3 a.m. the next morning and took my chances again and drove down there and did the audition.”
She said she left the audition feeling confident in how she’d done and her confidence was vindicated when she received a call advising her she would likely be heading to Toronto in April to film.
“The following week though in March, COVID-19 came to our doorsteps here in B.C. and they shut everybody down. So, nobody was going anywhere and I certainly wasn’t going to be travelling to Toronto in April to film The Dragons’ Den.”
The show then 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. I want to showcase this magnificent protein that we can use…That’s why I went with the chowder, it reminds me of Tofino and speaks to my roots, it speaks to my community and you can’t get beautiful wild salmon all over this country.”
She noted that she uses Chum salmon, which she believes is the species’ “unsung hero.”
“Everybody wants chinook or coho or sockeye, people dismiss the chum salmon, it’s a brilliant fish I’ve been using it for 20 years, it works great in the chowder.”
Ahier is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and said she was operating a luxury resort in Texas with her then-husband when the pair travelled to a trade show in Jasper and took a detour vacation in B.C. where she found her home.
“It was on that trip that I fell in love with this coast. It was in January, pissing down rain and rained the whole time I was here, that didn’t matter to me. I knew that I was home,” she said. “I talked to Judy Gray at RE/MAX Realty and I said, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be. I’ve got to find a job and I’ve got to find a place to live.’”
She said it wasn’t long after she returned to Texas that Gray beckoned her back.
“She found me a job and she found me a place to live,” she said, explaining she moved to Ucluelet before moving to Tofino. “My heart belongs in both places and I’ve always viewed Tofino and Ucluelet to be one. I never look at them as two different communities, I just don’t.”
She opened a food truck in Tofino specializing in fish tacos in 2003 and then opened her own restaurant, SoBo, which is celebrating its 12th birthday this year.
She added that regardless of whether she finds an investor in The Dragons’ Den, she is confident her new venture with her chowder will be a success.
“I can visualize it on shelves across Canada and into the United States. I can visualize it and know that it’s going to happen and know that it’s going to be the thing that will take care of my children once I’ve left this earth. It’s really important to me as a single mother to create generational wealth for my kids. I don’t want pampered kids, but I want them to be able to have a safety net if their life gets in some kind of trouble…I want to know that I can do something that can help them once I’m gone.”
She cited a chant taught to her by Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation elder Levi Martin that she repeats to herself each morning.
“‘May all good things come my way. May all good things flow through me. May all good things come my way.’ I say this chant like four times and then after I say it I close my eyes and I visualize what it is I want in my future,” she said. “I visualize this happening and I am extremely confident that with the Dragons’ help or somebody’s else’s help that this is going to happen.”
She added that the West Coast will always be home, regardless of how successful she becomes.
“I’m a chef, it’s what I do, but if I had to do something else, like bag groceries, pump gas, clean vacation rentals, do landscaping I would rather change my occupation than change where I live. Tofino is where I’ll die and my children’s home will always be here for them. That is my goal.”