Stephanie Howarth, 41, is co-founder with David Segal [of DavidsTea] of the Mad Radish chain of Canadian fast casual restaurants. There are now three locations in Ottawa and one in Toronto.
I grew up in Knowlton, a small Quebec town, quite poor, my mom a single mother working at difficult low-paying jobs. We grew up financially insecure. It instilled a strong desire to be financially independent, to take care of myself. I was very excited to move to Montreal at 17 for CEGEP at Dawson College.
I started working at 19 in McGill University’s bookstore. I was nervous, didn’t have a sense of my worth or capabilities. I quickly realized I loved recommending books, in the service of a wonderful product, making people happy. That created a spark inside me. I worked in offices, administration, customer care and client management in freight forwarding – 10 years learning how to operate in a business.
Coming off my second maternity leave, I worked 40 hours a week in event planning and catering, then nights and weekends overseeing events. It wasn’t sustainable. In 2008 at 30, it was time to demand more from myself professionally.
Tea was a tradition in my family, 3 p.m. every day with my British grandmother. She was influential, editor of the local paper in her 70s and 80s, so intelligent and egalitarian, she held me to high standards.
David posted a Craigslist ad, “Young entrepreneur is starting a tea company. Needs executive assistant.” I thought, “Nana would get a kick out of this;” she had died a few months before. Working with a noble product is a privilege, I might not have applied for “Entrepreneur starting paper company.” Meeting David was alchemy. I knew it was going to be successful, the right time for that product and brand.
I was the first DavidsTea employee. We built a team of young people, the early days were a meritocracy. In a small business, you’re wearing different hats and learning. They gave me opportunities to explore functions in buying, sales, operations. I’d always been creative, social and enjoyed social commentary and debate – that led to marketing. Working in that startup environment allowed me to gain business acumen – trial and error in some cases – with phenomenal mentors.
One CEO, Jevin Eagle, said, “You’re getting an MBA.” But as a single parent – not to say they can’t work full-time, raise kids and get an MBA – I felt it would compromise me.
A company transitioning to a public company goes through big changes. I hungered to create a new culture more closely aligned with my values, creating phenomenal customer experience, a great product and growth, providing opportunities to people. I left in May, 2016, David left a few months prior; he asked if I wanted to work with him. Now I get to work at a high level toward something I believe in.
A delicious salad is a treat. People used to think it was like medicine: You’d been bad, hadn’t been eating right, were on a diet. The advent of bowls is fairly new; wave one was explaining salad shops, now we’re differentiating. We have dishes with almost no greens. We’ve built a crave-worthy menu, comfort in a bowl.
Mad Radish is demonstrating mad passion for ingredients. We source local food in season, 100 per cent; it makes good business, it’s the most affordable, freshest and tastes best. We’re not creating unnecessary waste, we only use plant-based compostable packaging. We’re cashless and trashless.
We’re looking for real estate opportunities. In 2019, we want to open three to five stores, 2020 be at 10 or more. Companies have a responsibility to support communities they operate in. We donate a serving of fresh produce to the Community Food Centres Canada per order on our app. Since we opened, 27,543 portions [as of Nov. 21].
My greatest responsibility is to create a strong, high-functioning team so everyone can perform well. I assume positive intent, that most people are trying to do the right thing, build something they’re proud of.
This is my culmination of hard work, honing skills, building relationships, bringing an important product to market. I don’t say “lucky.” Women say that all the time. I was in the right place at the right time. I chose to walk through the door.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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