Someone forgot to send Tania Ganassini and John Vetere the memo about Niagara-on-the-Lake being a town for retirees looking for a peaceful life.
The two young chefs visited our quiet little community on a whim. “We had never really thought of NOTL as a place to live,” says Vetere, a considerate, gentle hipster. “When we visited it just happened to smell like concord grapes. We just knew right away — it just felt right.” He continues, “We spotted gaps in the market for things that could come here. And we felt a real actual sense of community, not the false community of the city. There was so much pride — it was cool to see.”
Vetere’s wife, a petite and pretty brunette with a warm smile and a sharp mind, says, “Everyone is rooting for each other to succeed; the sense is that we need to do this collectively for the growth of the region as a whole, not the individual.”
They led the subsequent trend in their family, and bought a house in The Village in 2014. Ganassini’s parents would buy a property a few houses down two years later, and her three siblings have also chosen to live in the Niagara region. “They all moved here for a better quality of life, proximity to nature, a slower pace, real estate opportunities, and proximity to each other,” says Ganassini. Of her own decision to move here, she says, “We were done with the grind; this just felt fresh, a nice place to be.”
Both cuisiniers had very successful, even enviable careers in the Toronto culinary scene. Vetere had a reputation for successful restaurant openings, and was a much lauded and sought-after entity. Ganassini had stints in the city’s darlings like Cafe Boulud in the Four Seasons Hotel, and Canoe Restaurant.
“I was so anti-vegetarian when I was in the kitchen at Canoe. When an order for a vegan substitution would come up, I would swear and yell, ‘Why don’t they just go to a vegan restaurant?’” It is difficult to imagine this radiantly peaceful now-vegan person cursing. “It was a stressful environment, and the kitchen wasn’t set up to handle vegan options in a simple, easily managed way. It wasn’t built in, we were swamped and stressed — ‘I can’t even.’”
Years later, the 31-year-old has made her veganism the core of her private and business lives.
“It really does open up compassion in all of your life. It improves your listening skills. I’m endlessly amazed by how much it cracks you open,” she says, wide-eyed.
The perception might be that Vetere is on the other end of the spectrum, as the executive chef at Brushfire Smoke BBQ, the food arm of Oast House Brewers. “At the end of the day we’re a barbecue restaurant,” says the accomplished 30-year-old. “But our goal is always to make everything as tasty as possible — and our vegetarian options are as good as or better than our traditional options.”
Again, the impression could be that a barbecue restaurant as part of a micro-brewery would cater to carnivores, but in fact, Vetere says, “There’s absolutely tons of demand for vegan foods at Oast. Huge traction. It’s unique, and there is such appreciation — so many vegetarians and vegans saying ‘thank you for making us feel heard and appreciated.’ It’s really cool to see.”
While Vetere “comes home so happy” from his job at Oast, it wasn’t an easy start for the pair in Niagara.
“We jumped in blind,” says Ganassini. “We moved here with no job, no friends nearby, nothing. We had never had a problem finding work in our field, and didn’t expect to have trouble getting jobs.” But they did struggle at first.
“Our timing was off, we couldn’t find work right away,” says Vetere. “In Toronto it’s too daunting to be an entrepreneur — it wasn’t even an option for us. But here it was a possibility. The Norton Underground came out of our dire situation.”
The Norton Underground was a virtual restaurant, a series of secret dinners in novel locations — like the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, for example (which, incidentally, has no kitchen). “We had no jobs, our first home mortgage, and we had a concept brewing. We wanted a speakeasy vibe, wanted people to feel like that,” says Ganassini, her eyes sparkling, her hands flying around excitedly. “We didn’t have any connections, our Toronto experiences didn’t really translate. We used social media to drum up followers. For two years we had events all over Niagara.” The pair was nominated for Niagara’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2015 thanks to the success of the dinner parties that saw people “arrive as strangers, and leave as friends,” according to Ganassini.
Proving the truth of her statement that “My hobby outside of cooking is cooking,” the hardworking Ganassini was soon running the kitchen at Southbrook Vineyards, and Vetere found himself as the chef de cuisine at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. The Underground became more and more of an undertaking, and soon had to be let go.
Ganassini looked for a change of scenery, and found it in working retail at Oast. Here she met Amanda Ali, who soon became a co-conspirator in a new side-hustle: Staff Meal Niagara.
Ali has a background in biology, international development, international nutrition management, has worked in Kenya and held nutrition workshops in third world countries — and she grew up in Niagara. The two bonded over food and fun. “We used to communicate via text using food puns, almost exclusively,” says Ganassini. Vegan wordplay has become a signature of Staff Meal: the women recently hosted vegan cheesemaking workshops with titles like “The Grateful Ched Part III: Ferment To Be,” and “In Queso Emergency.”
The theoretical vegan food delivery business found an unexpected niche: Working folks without access to healthy vegan lunches. The women originally targeted those they knew best: people in the food service industry. “We would see people in the industry destroying their bodies,” says the passionate food advocate. “There was no access to healthy fast foods — that felt like a no-brainer gap in the market, a pain point that needed to be met. In fact, the pain point was more important than the business: we needed to start changing this paradigm in the industries of service, health care, educators. They weren’t being nourished.”
In a meant-to-be moment, a series of coincidences led to Staff Meal Niagara winning a bursary, and subsequently launching. “It’s so easy to sit on an idea,” says Ganassini, “but this win forced us to move forward. It didn’t make sense on paper so we used a ‘fail fast’ approach,” meaning they took risks, and threw themselves into it completely. They soon found another sector that needed nourishment: women entrepreneurs.
The business grew and grew — they even made appearances at the Farmers Market in the Village on Saturday mornings. The problem was their kitchen: they didn’t have one. “We would schlep everything to our food prep space, and build a kitchen, make the food, tear the kitchen back down again, and take it home.” For obvious reasons, this arrangement ceased to be reasonable, and Staff Meal is on hiatus while the pair looks for a viable prep kitchen.
In the meantime the workshops will continue. “You wonder if you have an impact, and workshops show you that directly. It’s a lot of work, but I love it so much: a direct connection with people,” says Ganassini with great enthusiasm. “The break has given us a chance to take a beat and re-evaluate. How contradictory to be in the wellness industry and not take care of ourselves.”
Ganassini and Vetere are taking good care of themselves. Vetere walks to and from work, often heading in with the rising sun. The pair enjoys exercising together at the community centre gym, and Ganassini is a big fan of local FoxDen Yoga. While she exercises and cares for her health, Ganassini is also nurturing an expanded concept. “I have visions of a wellness centre, a community hub, maybe a place where farmers could drop off their seconds,” for use in healthy vegan foods.