Chris and Sharon Hooton, owners of Woodfire Restaurant and Catering in Gabriola Island, hand-blend small batches of spices to ensure quality and freshness
Originally from the United Kingdom, Sharon and Chris moved to the west coast to start their family and launch their first business.
Couple fall in love with and settle in Gabriola Island
Chris is a second-generation chef who apprenticed under the watchful eye of his father and completed classical French training.
Throughout his career, he worked in Switzerland and Australia and helped build numerous multi-million dollar restaurants and bars. In 1996, the couple emigrated to Vancouver, without having ever been to Canada before. They briefly moved back to England in 2001 to look after family and then settled in Gabriola Island in 2008.
During his time travelling and exploring various cuisines, Chris developed his own style and “by 2010, he was coming up on 30 years in the trade,” Sharon says. “He put so much effort into starting new ventures in the UK, that he finally wanted to start his own restaurant.” So, that year, Sharon and Chris entered a partnership to open Woodfire Pasta and Pizza. About a year and half after the official launch, their businesses exited and Sharon and Chris continued to operate the restaurant on their own.
“We soon realized being on Gabriola that we needed to touch more food bases beyond pizza and pasta, so we introduced the grill side of things,” Sharon says. They changed the name slightly to Woodfire Restaurant and Catering. “We went for a west coast Mediterranean theme. It’s comfortable elegance. A dining experience that was enjoyable and accessible for everybody,” she adds.
New business venture spices things up
In 2016, Chris and Sharon added a new branch to their established business and introduced Woodfire Spice into their branding.
“The inspiration was really from our customers. Chris had been creating these dishes and there was a lot of feedback from our customers, wondering how the food tastes so good,” Sharon says. “They love that the flavours are so unique and mention they’ve never tasted food like this. It comes down to the spice blends Chris makes. He has always blended spices and has a strong bold flavour in his dishes that is unique.”
Before Woodfire Spices materialized, “we gave customers little spice samplers to play around with at home. We thought we’d fill the need for people who want to try and replicate the flavour profile of Woodfire at home.”
Now, the couple hand blends a range of spices in small batches to ensure quality and freshness. All spices are free of gluten, MSGs, additives, preservatives and fillers. They create easy-to-use spices for everyday use from top-quality ingredients.
To prevent sunlight exposure and preserve the bold flavours, the spices come in aluminum tins.
Sharon’s favourite product is the original Island Spice mix.
“When we decided to introduce the grill side of things, we had to do fries. Chris had worked in higher-end restaurants, so he wanted to make his fries really good,” she says. “So, he created this sweet, salty and spicy blend for the fries and that started the ball rolling. It works amazingly on everything.”
Since the launch of Woodfire Spice, the couple have also introduced The Fire Truck Grill, which is located at Page’s Inn on Silva Bay. This newest west coast-inspired venture features flame-grilled meats and seafood.
Passion for the west coast
While Sharon and Chris visited many locations across the globe, their hearts were set on the west coast.
“We’ve had a passion for the west coast ever since we moved to Vancouver,” Sharon says.
“When we were on Gabriola the first time, the sense of community was so strong. It was such a safe and nice environment. It has beautiful surroundings and just that pulling together of the community had a big impact on us with young kids at the time.”
They headed back to the UK for a short stint, but what drew them back to the west coast were the lifestyle, people and the hard work and make-it-happen mentality. “I love that entrepreneurial spirit here,” Sharon says.
‘Local accessibility is huge’
As business owners and residents in a small community, Sharon and Chris have really turned up the local dial since the onset of COVID-19 lockdowns.
“People’s radars are switched on from the pandemic,” Sharon says. “We have a strong window of opportunity to capture and enforce good future habits to make people think local first. It’s important we focus on that.”
Not only is buying local good for the economy, staying local has environmental and societal benefits.
“Coming from a small island, you have to look after your own. There are a lot of farmers on the Island and we need to support them,” Sharon says.
“There are a lot of local business owners on Gabriola who have that entrepreneurial spirit. The amazing and unique things that people are doing here, we are so lucky to have so much of it.”
Indeed, local product accessibility plays a huge role in the ability of small business owners to showcase their products and for community members to find the goods and services they need. For Sharon and Chris and many other local business owners, the Island Good brand has played a significant role in promoting and showcasing local products.
“So many people want to buy local, so we need to make it easier for people everywhere to get it,” Sharon says.
From a small island perspective, “we need to look at what we can create here, so we don’t have to depend on goods from far away. Local purchases make us financially stronger, and together as a community we are stronger.”
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