Stella’s Restaurant co-owner Tore Sohlberg, who is also a WestJet Airlines pilot, recalls the time he met then-Salisbury House owner Earl Barish in the airport terminal on a return flight from Las Vegas.
Pilot Sohlberg, who was dressed in his captain’s uniform, went over to Barish, whom he’d met several times as a fellow restaurateur, to say hello.
Barish just stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"He just couldn’t put it together. He just couldn’t..." said Sohlberg, who has a tendency not to finish sentences, but not before you usually get the gist.
Stella’s now has seven restaurants in Winnipeg, as well as a bakery, and employs 570 people. Yet Sohlberg, one of the two remaining partners, still hasn’t quit his day job, as if not quite sure yet how this restaurant thing is going to turn out.
Like Salisbury House, Stella’s has attained that rarefied air as a Winnipeg-made success story in the food-serving sector.
And like Salisbury House, it’s almost a badge of being a Winnipegger to have eaten at a Stella’s. It’s one of us now. It’s a member of the unofficial Order of the Buffalo in terms of street cred.
It’s also one of the most unique restaurant business models, shunning all pre-mixes in the cooking process in favour of preparing everything on its menu from scratch.
As for the Stella’s name? It’s perhaps unfortunate they picked one synonymous with the iconic Hollywood movie scene where a T-shirted Marlon Brando, standing outside a New Orleans tenement, bellows his wife’s name, seeking forgiveness after having brutalized and cheated on her and lectured her on the how the Napoleonic code gives all property rights to the husband.
This restaurant name is not quite as dramatic, or retrograde. It was actually named after business partner Lehla Abreder’s cat.
The name is now patented across Canada, but not without much legal wrangling along the way, said Sohlberg. Imagine trademarking the name of your cat!
Flying brought Sohlberg to Winnipeg.
Stella's is saying, 'I'm from Winnipeg and my vegetables come from Manitoba.' The local appeal seems to be more dominant today and I think people feel a real sense of connection. — Fang Wan, marketing professor with the University of Manitoba Asper School of Business.
Sohlberg, 47, was born in Norway and moved to Canada’s West Coast with his family when he was 12.
His father was a chef and log house builder and taught Tore how to do both. The family ran a bakery café and Tore knew when he turned 19, after his parents left him in charge of the café while they took a vacation, that he would one day have his own a café.
After obtaining his pilot’s licence, he went to northern Manitoba to work in Gillam for Gillam Air Service. It was later, while with Calm Air working for then-owners the Morberg family, that he was stationed in Winnipeg and launched the first Stella’s, along with his then-wife and still business partner, Lehla, and his brother Tomas Sohlberg and his wife, Anneen du Plessis, who have since left the company.
Stella’s started on Dec. 13, 1999, as an over-the-counter breakfast and lunch café in Osborne Village. It was remarkably successful and a Stella’s on Grant Avenue opened next. That was followed by the Sherbrook Street store in 2005 in the former McKnight’s Pharmacy that had a yoga studio and internet pharmacy upstairs. It eventually opened for dinner and stays open into the night.
Stella’s offers a different sort of menu — one that struck a chord with Winnipeggers. It’s not a burger joint, a lunch counter, a breakfast nook, an ethnic food restaurant, a pizza place or a snack house. It serves comfort food but is more health-conscious, kind of hipster, advertising fresher food, often with an uncommon blend of ingredients.
And no French fries. Which was the first question of the interview, conducted at the Sherbrook location. Why don’t you serve French fries? Sohlberg was asked. What have you got against French fries?
"We don’t have deep fryers. We didn’t think it went with...," he said, not finishing another sentence.
Stella’s had two rules when it first opened: no deep fryers and no smoking. The bank almost refused to give it a loan unless it allowed smoking, as that was 1999 and tobacco and restaurants still went hand in glove.
But there was another feature that set it apart: its refusal to use premixes, a huge commitment by the restaurant and a claim few can make. That’s the way Sohlberg learned it from his parents’ café in Harrison Hot Springs.
Today, everything on its menu is made from scratch, including the sauces, soups, jams, chutneys, curries and salad dressings — even the mayonnaise. "The croissants are hand rolled," Stella’s operating manager, Grant Anderson, likes to say. Anderson, a veteran in the restaurant business who now owns shares in Stella’s, was a pivotal hire in 2010, who tightened up processes and brought structure to Stella’s.
In other words, Stella’s serves home-made food. They bake from scratch nine different artisan breads, as well as pan bread and pastries.
"We have a really low food cost because of that but higher labour costs because it’s more labour intensive. It’s just shifting the cost over," Sohlberg said.
It also has a mandate to buy local products wherever possible. So it obtains its grass-fed beef from Spring Creek Farms near Cypress River, its wheat from Prairie Flour Mills in Elie, its eggs from Nature’s Farm near Steinbach, its corn tortillas from Sunny Day out of Winkler, and its potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables from Peak of the Market.
Sohlberg works for WestJet on a reduced schedule, flying eight or nine days a month. "I’ve been a pilot the longest and it’s in my blood. I really do enjoy getting away and leaving everyone here to do their work," he said.
But it wasn’t always so. "It’s very hard to let go," he confided. Stella’s was built like a mom-and-pop operation where Sohlberg had a hand in everything, including food preparation. But his going away flying allowed the restaurant to grow almost organically as staff shouldered more responsibility and proved capable of making their own decisions.
The restaurant benefited from him not constantly looking over people’s shoulders, he says.
Then again, Sohlberg doesn’t seem like your typical boss. For one thing, he laughs too easily and too frequently. For another, dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, he looks more like the delivery guy — or maybe a pilot who walked in off the street — than the person running the show.
Salisbury House, recently sold to restaurateur Noel Bernier and principal partners Dave Filmon and Métis Economic Development Fund, has long been the burger place with the deli feel, where rich and poor break bread in booths across the aisle from each other.
Stella’s is harder to characterize. It’s a little more upscale but still moderately priced, with a healthier menu and a social consciousness. It still has menu items like grass-fed beef, quinoa burgers, smoked salmon breakfast and courtyard eating at some locations. But it’s appeal is much broader today — or maybe the rest of the population has just caught up.
It’s still got a touch of the hipster element. For example, it runs a composting program out of two locations, including Sherbrook. It keeps beehives on the Sherbrook location rooftop. It has also gone to single, gender-neutral washrooms at two locations, Sherbrook and Pembina.
Sohlberg defends the latter move, saying its not the only restaurant with gender-neutral washrooms in town, and they also have a separate family washroom. "I just think it’s happening. If you go to Europe, it’s all over."
The restaurants are always busy, even during off-peak hours like 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. People go for coffee, or to view their portable computers, or even to read a book, and there’s lots of space so no one is pushing you out the door.
The goal at Stella’s, says Sohlberg, is inclusivity. "I would characterize Stella’s as a neighbourhood restaurant accessible for everyone," he said.
"It’s like Norm at Cheers," said a former restaurant consultant. "They make you feel comfortable. They don’t give you the bum’s rush."
People will often pick up pastry from Stella’s for an office meeting as a step up from the usual doughnut shop fare.
"It’s not your grandparents’ coffee shop," said the former restaurant consultant, who asked not to be named. "My generation ran in and grabbed a coffee and glazed, sugary doughnut. No. Stella’s says we’re serving you something healthier and you’ll be better off for it."
Stella’s claims to have a high rate of retention of staff for a restaurant. Servers can almost seem like part of one big social club. Cooking from scratch also allows staff to be more creative, Sohlberg said. Those working 20 hours or more hours a week are eligible for health and dental benefits with premiums split 50-50.
"Stella’s has grown smartly," continued the former consultant. "They didn’t try to build something beyond what they had until they were ready."
Sohlberg says as much, maintaining that the new outlets just came about when the timing and fit seemed right.
"It’s very successful. Its numbers speak volumes about its strength," said Fang Wan, marketing professor with the University of Manitoba Asper School of Business.
However, with expansion comes new challenges like quality control. A disappointed customer at one location can affect all the Stella’s cafes.
Wan believes the current climate in marketing has contributed to Stella’s success.
"Global (restaurant) brands have a lot of money so they can really dominate with marketing," she said. But the media for advertising has become more fragmented and are not as strong as they once were. Now social media is on the rise.
That gives opportunity for small, independent brands like Stella’s to gain traction, she said. Stella’s marketing is basically limited to Facebook and word-of-mouth, Sohlberg said.
Another factor contributing to Stella’s success is a greater public support for local enterprise.
"Stella’s is saying, ‘I’m from Winnipeg and my vegetables come from Manitoba,’" said Wan, who mentions the Wolseley Salad as one of her favourites. "The local appeal for this seems to be more dominant today and I think people feel a real sense of connection."
Sohlberg is constantly asked about expansion. It seems likely to happen but only if it’s the right fit, he said.
As for whether it will expand beyond Winnipeg, that’s another matter. Stella’s business model requires a central location where the raw product is stored and prepared. Stella’s calls it the "commissary," a term typically meaning military kitchen like the one subject to jokes in TV reruns of MASH.
But in Stella’s usage, the commissary is a 7,500 square kitchen and warehouse on Waverley St. around which its restaurants revolve. For example, the commissary peels, blanches and stores its potatoes. To duplicate the commissary model in another city would require Stella’s to open four restaurants at once to achieve a viable economy of scale. That’s a big investment, Sohlberg and Anderson say.
So it may very well remain a local Winnipeg phenomenon. By the same token, it’s why Stella’s owners don’t franchise but rather own all the outlets themselves. It would be too complicated, Sohlberg says.
Stella’s owners recently opened a different concept restaurant called Kevin’s Bistro in the Exchange District. Kevin is also a cat, this time belonging to Tore’s parents. It’s a gourmet mac-and-cheese bistro, "a fun project," he called it.
Stella’s locations are on Sherbrook, Osborne, Grant, the Buhler Centre on Portage Avenue, the Centre culturel franco-manitobain on Provencher Boulevard, Pembina Highway, and Richardson International Airport.