Marie Fitrion is the owner of a Toronto-based catering company, Urban Acorn, which she runs with her husband. Several weeks ago, I interviewed her and we spoke about a manner of things. The first part of that interview was published in the article “Voodoo Haggis and Sparking Joy“, which you can read right here. This is the second part, and again, it has been reproduced here with certain sections omitted for reasons of length and clarity.
What would you say was your greatest struggle opening up the business?
Ooh, greatest struggle. Uh, money! Getting money. We kinda didn’t start with any money. And we didn’t want to go through banks for funding, so we kind of like funded everything ourselves, which was a little bit challenging. Just because I don’t have deep pockets, my partner doesn’t have deep pockets. So we just – what we did was we created a “signature series” that we do every month, and we started them back in 2012 before we even were an official company, and we still do them today. And it started off as a way for people to get to know us and for us to engage with our community as caterers because you know your favourite restaurant but you don’t know any caterers, so when you’re having a party, it’s kind of like “well, who am I going to call; who do I trust to manage this event to do the food? When I have a relationship with my local bar, or like, my local restaurateur, or whatever.” We kind of wanted to have that same relationship as a catering company. So we started doing those, and those generated a little bit of money and a lot of interest, and sort of, we just kept re-investing into the business until we got to the point where we were like, “ok, we’re like a legit company, we can register, and we can actually run this thing.”
So you guys didn’t take out a business loan or anything like that?
That’s impressive, most of the stories I’ve heard usually involve, you know, raising either through stocks or whatever it happens to be.
I mean, I guess lucky but unlucky. My partner and I had both been through personal- we’d both been through divorces, which was very financially draining, and so we weren’t in a place where we could even get a loan even if we wanted to. So, that, with sheer determination, we were like “we’re gonna make this work”. So, I don’t know. Maybe we would’ve been more cautious and done things a little differently had we had all the money that we needed, but given that we didn’t, we kind of had to rely on some, like, innovation and gumption, and just… sheer ridiculousness in order to get things done. Sometimes, when you’re in a corner, you just get it done.
Kind of like, rock bottom, the only place to go is up, I guess.
Exactly. Or like, the day before a paper is due, and you’re like “I’m writing the best paper of my li-ife!” You know? If you had started three weeks earlier, maybe it wouldn’t be the best. Who knows? For me, it’s like some weird thing, where like, the best work sometimes comes from being cornered, which is a really bad habit to have, but procrastination seems to work for me. It’s just awful!
I feel the same way! Speaking of academics, you’ve done a fair bit of schooling. Two diplomas and a degree from Guelph. I feel like an oft-cited complaint from people my own age is that all the stuff we learn aren’t things we’re going to apply. I know that changes when you get to uni, but what do you feel that you took from all that schooling? What stuck with you?
Honestly? So, I would say that I use my schooling every day. Um, like, little bits and pieces of things. I was a communications major: I did PR, and I did fashion. So there were definitely some classes, where like, I don’t use them today. I think in my university classes, I had a, oh what was it? I think it was statistics class, which I very, very nearly failed. But, I never used my statistics. It’s something I don’t touch. But everything else, PR is the reason why I was able to sort of, like – I mean, you know, PR and journalism are very much, they’re hand in hand, so I was able to do some writing this summer leveraging some of my PR skills, writing skills. I write all the time. I wrote the website, I built the website. I also had a web design class as part of – so, I did a university-college-hybrid, where it’s like you get a degree and you get a diploma at the same time. So, we had classes in like photography, so I’ve taken a bunch of our food photos. Um, and in the beginning when you can’t afford to pay anybody, it’s kind of good to have those rough skills.
And with regards to fashion, I mean I work a lot with weddings. I deal with clients, with colour palettes, whether it’s decorating a space for an event, or just understanding what goes together. Clients are very – especially bougie clients with a lot of money – they want things to look a certain way, so you need to know, like “okay, is this a jeans and t-shirt kind of client?” We can shoot the shit and we can just talk like normal people, or is this a bougie client where I’m gonna have to put on my fancy heels and perhaps put on a different look so that I can get things going. So that’s all part of my education, sort of understanding all the nuances there. I think I use my education all the time.
That last point you raised is actually kind of interesting, that idea of wearing very different hats, as in knowing what kind of person you’re talking to, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, understanding how to present yourself. A big part of catering is being, they call it “white label service”, which basically just means that my job is to basically present whatever image the client wants. So that versatility in style in terms of what we deliver also exists within my partner and I. We are versatile and we are able to adapt ourselves to the various clients that we end up with. My whole thing is that I want to make sure people know that I’m putting out really good quality food, and it’s going to be an elevated experience, but elevated doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be personable, and that it doesn’t have to be fun, and that it doesn’t have to feel like a human was part of the planning. So it’s marrying those two things together.
An analogy comes to mind based off of that, the idea of modern street fashion, I guess? Kind of draws from both high fashion and the skater aesthetic.
Yeah, or like a Banksy, like a highbrow/lowbrow type thing, where you’re just playing with the aesthetic of something.
So, I guess next, in general, what would you say is the best advice that you have for people my age, roughly?
The best advice? You’ll never fully have it figured out. You’ll be like, “ah, when I’m x years old, or when I’ve done this”, and then you’ll get there and be like, “okay, I know a bit more, I understand maybe life a little bit better, but I still don’t have it figured out.” I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Leave yourself open for opportunities. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Like, I didn’t start in events, I started in marketing, and I went through that divorce, and I was like “Oh God, what do I do, what do I do?” And immediately, I was like, “I’m going back to school, because I’ll figure it out when I’m there.” And then I did that, and I didn’t really figure it out, but I found this guy and he’s a great chef, so we started this company. But, like, I might do back to school. I might go do a master’s. I might go do a PHD, and I’ve left myself open in order to do that. I’ve kept in contact with those profs, I’ve kept the dialogue going. I make sure that I check in with people that I think are going to be interesting for me to continue to connect with in the future, so you never know where you’re going to go, and you will not have it all figured out. That’s my advice for people your age, or anyone’s age, really.
I mean, it’s pretty good – sounds pretty good. Now, obviously, COVID makes running a business very hard, and I’ve noticed a lot of the alternations you guys have made. It definitely seems like you guys are definitely adapting very well. How do you feel that goes?
It’s good. I mean, that signature series that I was talking about – that’s basically my business now, which again is difficult because when you run a business, you have overhead, so you have costs that don’t change month to month regardless of what happens. And then you have your fluctuating costs, right. So rent is very expensive, things like that, and it’s just that signature series wasn’t meant to my only business, but it has turned into that. Luckily for me, at least, it’s catching on. People are really liking the idea of doing an online dinner party. It’s doing really well, but it’s also kind of like “hopefully, people still want to do this next month.” I mean, obviously, I would rather be doing, like, actual events, but this is the best case scenario where I can’t do weddings, I can’t do events, but I can do these signature series events. We actually have a new series coming out that’s going to be online cooking classes that my partner is going to be doing live which will be fun. It’s actually giving a little bit more time, because the signature series we used to do five days in a row, every night for five nights, and now we’re doing it one night, and it’s more revenue because we’re not limited by the number of people that can be physically in our space. So it’s a little bit more, it’s actually simplified things in some ways, and then in other ways it’s made things complicated.
Yeah, and COVID’s also brought all the conspiracy theorists out of the woodworks.
You know what counteracts conspiracy theory? Education. And picking up a book in general. Just reading, you know? Maybe not reading things on the internet. Like, look for peer-reviewed sources, or like, listen to doctors or, you know, people who know what they’re talking about, not some random guy.
But beyond that, I assume you would say that food unites people?
It sure does. Sure, sure does. Which is why we always celebrate with food, right? Like, I mean, you can look at almost any religion, look at almost any culture, any race, any community, and they use food as a way to celebrate. Food and music are kind of like synonymous with celebrations, so yeah, it’s a big deal.
Well, um, I’m kind of all out of stuff I’ve prepared.
It’s good, this is good timing.
I think this went pretty well. It was nice talking to you properly.
You as well.
Part 2 of 2