Three years ago, Alvaro Gonzalez’s wife accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at The Ottawa Hospital. He arrived in the capital with a business degree and a lot of retail and marketing experience, but found a related job difficult to find. It wasn’t good news for Alvaro, but it was good news for Ottawa – the downturn in the job market prompted entrepreneur Alvaro to join compatriot David Gonzalez (unrelated) in launch Solfarmers, important delicious Spanish specialties that appear more and more frequently on the menus of the restaurants of the city.
City Bites Insider caught up with Alvaro to find out more about his business. We asked: Which restaurants have Solfarmer specialties on the menu? Which stores stock them so that we can take them home to try them out? Afterwards, we took an intensive course in Spanish cuisine and corporate culture.
Tell me about the name Solfarmers
It’s like it sounds. Sol is “sun” in Spanish, so we import 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 the city’s food stores and visited restaurants. I quickly realized that the best Spanish products weren’t available here, so I was convinced that chefs and others would want quality olive oils, canned seafood, and raw hams that I could import from Spain.
Spanish cuisine isn’t a big thing here – yet. Was it tricky?
Yes, because I am creating a market for something that did not exist here. It takes time to promote Spanish gastronomy because it is not known. Once people have tasted the products, they believe it, but you have to get people to try them.
How was the reception of the chefs?
It was really good. Many chefs are already using our products and we also spoke with people from Montreal.
Do you have any examples?
Our olive oils are very popular. The three Beckta restaurants (Play Food & Wine, Beckta and Gezellig) have ordered our organic oils and Cordon Bleu is working with them. Fairouz uses two of our olive oils – one for everyday and one for finishing the plates. Marc LÃ©pine d’Atelier uses one of our organic oils.
Salt Bar restaurant ordered canned ham and seafood, as did Bar Laurel. Aperitivo in Kanata and Soca Kitchen also work with our seafood.
It takes time to meet the chefs and have them taste your products, but it is a passion for me.
Do you find doing business in Canada different from doing business in Spain?
Absoutely! In Spain, we are very direct. So, for example, if I sell my products in Spain, the person I am dealing with would tell me right away if they liked a product or what else they needed. He would tell me if he thought my product was too expensive or if he needed something different. It’s very respectful, but also very direct. It’s good to hear how you can improve yourself!
In Canada, people aren’t that blunt, so it’s harder to get feedback on what chefs or store owners really think about your ideas and products. To learn more about Ottawa restaurants, I go out to dinner and try their menus, then reach out to the chefs to let them know what products I have that can make their dishes even better.
What are your most popular products?
Everyone loves sardines. If you buy Canadian sardines, they are big enough – three or four in a can – and packed in water. Our Gourmet Spanish Sardines are very small; very tasty and tender. You get about 20-25 in a box and they’re hand-packed in olive oil. They are so cool.
Our olive oils are very fresh. When you try one of our olive oils, you know it’s fresh – harvested this season – and that’s so important.
We sell Iberian ham, which is very popular. Pigs eat a lot of acorns, which gives meat its special taste. Our clients include restaurants and the Spanish Embassy in Ottawa.
You can buy Solfarmer products in specialty stores around town, right?
Yes, some seafood stores like Lapointe and Merivale Fish Market sell our canned seafood. Grace in the Kitchen stocks our products, as do Emulsify, Les FougÃ¨res, Market Organics and La Bottega.
What if people are interested, but have no idea how to use your products?
Right now we have links to easy recipes through our Facebook and Twitter sites, but we are currently updating our website. When finished, it will list a few recipes to try with each of our canned seafood, as well as our olive oils and hams. There will also be a lot more information about each of our products so you can really understand it – where it came from in Spain, how it was fished or harvested, what makes it special.
The holiday season is almost here. Do you compose gift baskets?
We do. Often times people who have gone on vacation to Spain will fall in love with the food, but it’s hard to find here. We can compose gift baskets with the olive oils and canned seafood they would have eaten in bars in Spain.