Paola Solorzano is a restless spirit. In a conversation with her, dialogue can go through different scenarios: from politics to social activism, from business to cooking. This is the final destination, her great passion. When she arrived in Canada from her native Mexico in 2003, she was looking for a safe country and a tolerant society. She wanted a country that would allow her to be free, herself. Then she began to build a professional career that inevitably led to gastronomy, a world that she knew well by family tradition. In 2012 she co-founded Santo Pecado, a catering company specializing in Mexican food. Her work has served not only to create a way of life but also to make known to Canadians the true traditional cuisine of Mexico. Paola is also a leading figure in the Spanish-speaking community in Toronto and an active advocate for the rights of the LGBT community.
Why did you decide to come to Canadá 15 years ago?
15 years ago … it seems like a life time ago. There were many issues. I think probably the most important one is I was looking for a safe place to be myself; myself as well as my partner at the time. We wanted to be in a safe space that was inclusive so we choose Canada becuase at the time, this is 2003, there were about to legalize same sex marriage. So for us it was very attractive the fact that we could express our selves and being ourselves freely. That was something that attracted us and looking to Canada some alternative to our native country, Mexico in this case.
Canada was closer to other cuountries that were inclusive. I had family here in Canada at the time. I was fluent in English so … you know, it was not going to be such a cultural shock for us because Canada is close to us in language, customs, in some many things that we told: you know what, adapting to this new country is not going to be so difficult. And on top of all we were young at the time so is easer to adapt whe you are in your 20´s.
Did you have any idea about Canada when you arrived in 2003. What did you find, what your first impression was like?
My first winter I honestly thought that never it was going to finish. I choose Stephen King’s The Shining to read in my first winter in Canada. So just imagine cold, dark, miserable … I was living in Scarborough but the Scorborough side that is close to Pickering, so very secluded. I felt so identified with the main character goingknobs over the weather, over the lack of freedom that they have, you know … so that’s one thing that I encountered that it was nothing that I had lived before.
Adapt to the new culture and adapting to speaking English to everyone and being fluent in this new language, although I was already fluent in English, was challenging. I never realized that there were idioms and idiosyncrasies behind language.
So I had to adapt to those things. I remember the first time that I ordered a coffee at Tim Hortons and they asked me “How do you want it?” … and I said “I don’t know… hot?” Then my brother who was in my side said: “double, double.” And i told him… hold on, hold on … double? What are you talking about? Two cream, two sugar… ok, fine!!! Those little things you have to learn them and as you are learning them you feel younger than you actually are, because you are exploring for the first time these basic things.
“We wanted Torontonians to experience a Mexican party the way we live it in Mexico.”
How did you decide to became an entrepreneur? What was the path you went through to make it a reality?
I went to culinary school at George Brown in 2007. When I started learning about the industry I was a little disillusioned, a little concern about this not so safe place to work at. There is a lot of sexual harassment in our industry, especially to women and I was a younger woman, a little bit more naive if you want, but still I did not really want to experience that type of violence in my work place.
So I decided that if I was going to do this chef thing that I had in mind it had to be in my own way so that’s why I decided to create a company. Initially, I thought it was going to do like healthy food, life style, things like that, but at the same time this older side of me, the Mexican in me which is very strong, it pushed me to think about bringing Tacos to Toronto, and I wanted to bring good Mexican food to Toronto.
And there was developing my healthy food company on this other side. But the Mexican side was pulling me away from that so at the end I had to make a decision and decided to do Mexican food which is what we have been doing during the last five years. We started thinking about the concept, the marketing, the way we were going to produce these parties that we had in our minds. We wanted Torontonians to experience a Mexican party the way we live it in Mexico.
Did you have any background or some tradition on this kind of food business in your family?
I am coming from a family of bakers, my grandpa was a baker. Then he developed a technology to improve the way they used to make bread. He had this kind of old washer machine and he adapted it to become it a mixer. So it was easier for him to make more bread using this makeshift mixer. He started to improving that technology to the point that it became a very profitable business for my grandfather, and then for my uncles and then for my whole family.
We were always in the bread industry in Mexico. I remember since I was probably 2 or 3 years old going with my mother to Expopan in Mexico City and everything had to do with bread. I grew up visiting bakers with my mom and selling them this new technology that my grandpa developed. I was always around food and it was really pretty to be part of that, really nice we would come together to my grandparents house, a big colonial house, with huge rooms and very tall ceilings and huge furnitures. We would had our main meal together at 3pm. Everyone had to be there, everyone had to sit down at the table and my mom has ten brother and sisters so just imagine. It was really interesting to be with my grandmother in the kitchen. She had two helpers and they produced this amazing banquets every single day.
I really enjoyed that very much being with my grandmother and going to the market with her every single day. I come from a traditional people that enjoy food very much.
What is the feedback you usually receive from the Canadian who tastes Mexican food for the first time?
I am finding more and more that the Canadian client is becoming more and more educated. They are going to different trips, not only to the resorts, not only to Playa del Carmen but they are going as well to these others cities. They are trying to explore more and I have clients who have lived in Oaxaca, clients who have lived in Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Guadalajara … so they go there and they try the food and they are just blown away and when they call me and they hire me for a wedding they want something like that. They don’t want burritos o tacos o things like that.
Nothing wrong with those things but they want something more sofisticated. And I really happy to see that shift because people is getting more and more interested in what is behind and what else is there in Mexican food.
Which has it been your main challenges as an entrepreneur in Canada?
Many challenges to be an entrepreneur in Toronto. Everything is very expensive, rents are very expensive. It’s very difficult to come up with the initial capital to invest and then once you are there the requirements are a little bit more, and then you need to invest a little bit more, and then when you are there you need a little bit more. So you are always pushing and pushing and pushing for money. We are always trying to improve our services so we are always investing more and more and more in our business. Antoher one is probably the seasonality of the business. In the summer time we don’t stop and it’s crazy. You have time for nothing. But when October comes you don’t have anything. If you want to planning the year you cannot do month by month.
What advice would you give to those Latino entrepreneurs who are thinking of starting a business in Toronto?
It is challenging. The support that we have in Toronto for small businesses is there. There is a lot of support, for example billing with the government it’s very straightforward. Now something that I enjoy a lot is setting of the grounds for the business. What I’m trying to say with this is asking for the license to the government, the permits and all those things. Something that was wonderful it is the lack of corruption.
In Mexico you have burocracy and corruption. You have to go and spend a month trying to get a permit, whereas here, for example, the only thing that I nedeed to do to get my Green Pass was call the officer, he wil come, check my permissions, everything is in order, here goes your permit. I didn’t have to pay a dollar, I didn’t have to standing line for three or four days. Everything is very simple. If young people is planning to start up a company here in Toronto, go for it. Because yes, the challenge is a lot but the support that you are going to get and the level off to set up a company is there. And is yours to take.
What does Canada represented for you in terms of tolerance, inclusion and respect?
It’s been really liberating, it’s really amazing. Many times you are ask what’s your coming out story. But you don’t come out once, it’s not something definitely that you do. You are coming out all the time. Whenever you know someone new have to come out with that person because people asume that you are going to be a married woman with kids or something like that. And I get that a lot. People like what is your husband do so I need to come out and say: no, I don’t have a husband. But at the same time it is really liberating there is not an issue and that’s amazing.
It means a lot to see a sticker with the rainbow at the window of the local business. And I see the younger generations doing all this things like the gender nonconformity reclaiming the right to be themselves … I think that is amazing. I really like how inclusive Toronto is in celebratory space because is not only about tolerance but is celebrating the difference, that make it so unique.