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Culinary Creativity with Cora Tsouflidou

Cora Tsouflidou met the challenges in the darkest period of her life and emerged to create one of Canada’s true business success stories.

Photography by Arkan Zakharov, Story by N. Naeme El-Zein

Inside an non-descript office complex in Mississauga — the kind with formal grey Venetian style blinds on all the windows — we wait for our guest of honour.

Dwarfed by our large cushy leather chairs, we sit patiently around a large mahogany boardroom table while business of the Blackberry variety is attended to. And lest we forget who and what has brought us to this location, there are some silent but ever-watching eyes looking down upon us as a reminder, but not of the human kind. Chickens of all shapes and sizes, mostlyceramic, in speckled ivory and off-white tones, peer down through glassy, amicable eyes from floating shelves around the boardroom – in silent approval of  Ms. Cora Tsouflidou.

After a full and early morning, opening a new Chez Cora in Burlington, Tsouflidou sits down to talk about her amazing 23-year career as an accidental restaurateur. Currently, the Chez Cora empire sits at 115 locations across Canada, with more on the way.

What was the spark? “Poverty,” says Tsouflidou, native of Caplan, Quebec.At the age of forty, after her marriage disintegrated and with three teenagers to tend to, Cora was left with the type of deep, brain-arresting insomnia that comes with fighting for survival.

With her education cut short by the pregnancy of her first child, and with so many years absent from the work force, she was regarded by many employers as unskilled and inexperienced, and therefore unemployable. Left scrambling to support herself and her family, Cora’s solution was the purchase of a modest 29-seat snack bar on Côte–Vertu Road in Montreal’s St Laurent district.

“My plan was to feed my kids.”

Growing up in Caplan, Cora had big dreams early on, pursuing a classical education after high school with a focus on Latin, Greek and literature, in the hopes of being a writer.A decade and three kids later, Cora reconnected with her creative juices behind a frying pan. “I discovered two major things that work for me and that still, to this day, make me wake up [and take notice].

“I discovered that you can create with food — not just words.Taking this and mixing it with that (gesturing passionately with her hands).With the morning food on my counter, I started putting chopped spinach in my crepe mix and putting all kinds of spices in my batter for French toast… I did not invent new food but I invented a new way of presenting food. I realized, and that was my biggest thing, that you can express your creativity even if you work in a kitchen.”

Cora’s passion, expressed through her contemporary breakfast’s unique flavors and combinations set amidst vibrant plate presentations, translated to a loyal following of customers that became a sort of extended family. During what might have been the darkest and most uncertain time in her life, she found an unwavering love in the positive feedback of her customers.

After two years at the snack bar, working as she describes it like, ‘devils,’ pulling seven-day workweeks, her children surprised her with a trip to Paris so she could rejuvenate. While travelling abroad she had the space to reflect and realized that the one location was not enough to sustain her family for the long-term. A new 59-seat location opened shortly after her return to Canada.

“When that second [location] opened, (she takes an audible intake of air, obviously still in awe close to 20 years later), I realized I was able to duplicate myself. So then I started to think, if I could open a second one that was as good as the first one … why don’t I do it another time? Each one of my kids could have their own Cora [restaurant] and I could have mine … that was the biggest realization I had; Why not another one and another one?”

In 1993, after her eighth store, Cora decided to explore franchising her business and taking the Cora name across Canada. By that point in Quebec, Cora’s name was synonymous with breakfasts that were feasts for the eyes as well as the belly.

The following year, Franchising Cora Inc. was created and the first franchise opened in Pointe-Claire. I ask if she was ever fearful or apprehensive, on this swift and seemingly smooth journey from housewife to businesswoman extraordinaire to freshly minted franchisor.

“I was full of fear, of course,” she says. “At the beginning, I always thought, I am not a businessperson; I am an intellectual, I’m a writer. This is not my forte and all those kinds of scary thoughts we put in our minds. Every time I opened a store I would say, ‘I reached my platform …my ceiling … and soon [people] will discover my incompetence.’ But I kept going on and because I am an intellectual, I read a lot and I read everything about franchising.”

Cora, fueled by both her lack of experience and her passion to succeed, became an expert on franchising. Without a mentor, she used the many authors and the obstacles they overcame in their endeavors as the guiding hands to lead her on this new path.

“Today I would say I educated myself on business … I read all the business books and reading was really my coach. One book in particular, Michael Gerber’s E-Myth, [discusses] why most entrepreneurs fail … It is not enough to know the product, you have to have a brain for business, to think, to coordinate and to organize.”

I ask if these skills came naturally for her as a mother. Coming from a family of three myself, I have seen the degree of multi-tasking, thinking on your feet and time and money-management, that goes into raising a brood.

“Exactly! Exactly! I had that. And those are business [skills]. Being a single mother I was saving to have enough to buy the groceries. I was keeping the children always in harmony. I was working hard, planning, teaching, encouraging and disciplining sometimes when I needed to. And these are all the things I do as a big boss. Being a mother is great preparation for business.”

Other than a few million well-dressed eggs and a voracious appetite for educating herself on all things business, what was the secret ingredient to Cora’s self-made success?

“That I like to create has helped a lot,” she says. “I took a segment of the restaurant business, which is breakfast, and no one had brought it very far. I created this concept, that many people today copy. 

Many franchises, as they grow, fall prey to losing the quality and the very unique charms that are the foundation of their initial success. How does Cora, with a growing number of establishments that extend as far as British Columbia, keep this long-distance family from becoming a broken home?

“Well, the fish smells from the head,” she says. “So I need to spread the culture of the company to my key people, which goes to the director that goes to the people on the field. We need to live the culture. I am at all the openings … I am still baking cookies and bars every Monday to take to the office.”

Unfortunately, it seems for every female success story told, there is a dose of predictable cautionary tale or the underlying connotations that being female alone acts as a handy-cap in business. Somehow I have a feeling that Cora feels differently and I ask her if she sees any advantages in being female.

“The biggest advantage [for women is] to know thatthey are so well prepared being a woman. Women are caring; they care for harmony, peace and love. Women work more and are realistic without as much ego.What I realized is most women [don’t see this], they think they are missing something to succeed. [Where as] I see that they are more talented and prepared just by being a woman. Especially with children, they have learned to deal with adversity. Besides, having a business is like having a baby; you get pregnant and in eight or nine months you have no preparation at all but the kid comes out and teaches you how to be a mother. In this way [starting a] business, it teaches you. My second passion, after my business, is making women realize that they have what it takes. God doesn’t send us dreams that we can’t realize.”

I ask her if she considers herself a role model. “I think so because I am an example of an old folk who started at 40 years old, with no money but a good cause and a good reason. I was in love with my job and passionate. I have integrity. For these reasons I can be a model that it is possible to succeed when you start at 40, when you are a woman, when you have integrity, when you have children. [For all these reasons] I am proof that it is possible.”

During her twenty-plus years in the hospitality industry Cora has won an impressive array of awards, including the Governor General’s award in 2003. In 2004, Cora was inducted into the Canadian Professional Sales Association’s Hall of Fame, followed by the Hall of Fame award from the Canadian Franchise Association in 2005. In 2009, she was one of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award winner in the Bell Trailblazer Award category.With plans to open upwards of 200 locations throughout Canada and expansion into the United States, one wonders what is left on Cora’s “to-do” list.

“To be frank my proudest moments have not been winning awards,” she says. “If we are the fastest growing company – it isn’t because of me. It is my great team … I started [my business] to feed my children but I succeeded in creating a franchise system.Today there are about 5,000 people across the network receiving a paycheque with the Cora sun on it. I created jobs and helped franchise owners to have their own business and independence. I am proud of that.”

Cora’s enormous success goes far beyond great omelettes for the general population.The Cora Foundation, started in 1998, has raised more than $1 million over the past ten years, directed towards non-profit organizations assisting children in need across Canada.

“When I started [at the snack bar] I was the cook and my son’s girlfriend was our waitress and she became pregnant. I was so worried because we were so poor … I decided to put $6 away everyday for [the child’s] education … as the business grew, I knew I would be okay and they would be okay. But I also knew how many children were not alright. We made our foundation to assist [non-profit organizations including] Breakfast Clubs of Canada, that provide schools [in low-income areas] with breakfasts for their students.”

Cora exudes a boundless energy. Having gotten up in the wee hours to attend the opening, she will be whisked away to board a plane shortly after our interview. And yet there is nothing low-energy or sleepdeprived about her. Her eyes shine brightly from behind a pair of retro-style frames.When she is feeling especially spirited about something, which is often, she moves her hands to underscore her zeal.

“In the beginning I think [my work ethic] came from my survival mode. I had to be the cook. I had to be the boss … I did not have a choice.When you come from a poor background you have no other solution but to work. And as they say, ‘When it’s windy even the chicken can fly.’ I am not stopped easily [even when things are tough]. Now it is part of my winning formula. I know when I need to work and I don’t complain. Hard work gives results. So many people are interested in things and they talk about it but they are not committed. I am a committed person. I’ll die on the spot, but I’ll do it – that’s the difference.”