Three years ago, Alvaro Gonzalez’s wife accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the Ottawa Hospital. He arrived in the capital with a business degree and lots of retail and marketing experience, but found a related job hard to come by. That wasn’t good news for Alvaro, but it was good news for Ottawa — the slow job market prompted the entrepreneurial Alvaro to join with fellow Spaniard David Gonzalez (no relation) to launch Solfarmers, importing tasty Spanish delicacies that are showing up with increasing frequency on restaurant menus around town.
City Bites Insider caught up with Alvaro to find out more about his business. We asked: Which restaurants have Solfarmer delicacies on the menu? What stores stock them so we can take them home to try? In the process, we got a crash-course in Spanish cuisine and business culture.
Tell me about the name Solfarmers
It’s like it sounds. Sol is “sun” in Spanish, so we’re importing the best of Spain through our food — the sun, the coast, the beaches, the culture.
How did you know Ottawa was ripe for your business?
I toured around the city’s food stores and visited restaurants. I realized quickly that the best Spanish products weren’t available here so I was confident that chefs and other people would want the quality olive oils, canned seafood, and cured hams that I could import from Spain.
Spanish cuisine is not a big thing here — yet. Has that been tricky?
Yes, because I’m creating a market for something that didn’t exist here. It takes time to promote Spanish gastronomy because it’s not known. Once people taste the products, they believe, but you have to get people to try them.
How was the reception from chefs?
It has been really good. Many chefs are already using our products and we’ve been talking to people in Montreal, as well.
Do you have any examples?
Our olive oils have been really popular. The three Beckta restaurants (Play Food & Wine, Beckta and Gezellig) have ordered our organic oils and Cordon Bleu works with them. Fairouz uses two of our olive oils — one for everyday and one for finishing plates. Marc Lepine of Atelier is using one of our organic oils.
The restaurant Salt Bar has ordered some of our ham and canned seafood, and so has Bar Laurel. Aperitivo in Kanata and Soca Kitchen also work with our seafood.
It takes time to get to meet with the chefs and have them taste your products, but this is a passion for me.
Do you find doing business in Canada different from doing business in Spain?
Definitely! In Spain, we’re very direct. So, for example, if I am selling my products in Spain, the person I’m dealing with would tell me right away if he liked a product or what else he needed. He would tell me if he thought my product was too expensive or if he needed something different. It is very respectful, but also very direct. It is good to hear how you can improve!
In Canada, people are not so direct, so it is harder to get feedback on what chefs or store owners really think about your ideas and products. To learn about the restaurants in Ottawa, I go out to dinner and try their menus, then contact the chefs to tell them what products I have that can make their dishes even better.
What are your most popular products?
Everyone loves the sardines. If you buy Canadian sardines, they are quite large — three or four in a tin — and packed in water. Our Gourmet Spanish sardines are very small; very tasty and tender. You get about 20-25 in a tin and they’re hand-packed in olive oil. They are so fresh-tasting.
Our olive oils are very fresh. When you try one of our olive oils, you know it’s fresh — harvested this season — and that is so important.
We sell Iberian ham, which is very popular. The pigs feed on a lot of acorns, which is what gives the meat its distinctive flavour. Our customers include restaurants and the Spanish embassy in Ottawa.
You can buy some Solfarmer products at specialty stores around town, correct?
Yes, some of the seafood stores like Lapointe’s and Merivale Fish Market sell our canned seafood. Grace in the Kitchen stocks our products and so do Emulsify, Les Fougères, Market Organics, and La Bottega.
What if people are interested, but have no idea how to use your products?
Right now, we link to easy recipes through our Facebook and Twitter sites, but we’re currently updating our website. Once it’s finished, it will list a few recipes to try with each of our canned seafood products, as well as our olive oils and hams. There will also be lots more information about each of our products so you can really understand it — where it comes from in Spain, how it was caught or harvested, what makes it special.
Holiday season is almost here. Do you put together gift baskets?
We do. Often people who have been on a holiday to Spain will fall in love with the food, but it’s hard to find here. We can put together gift baskets with the olive oils and canned seafood that they would have eaten at the bars in Spain.