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Conversations: Sal Howell, Owner of River Café and Deane House

Conversations: Sal Howell, Owner of River Café and Deane House

If you’ve ever been to Calgary, chances are you’ve eaten at one of Sal’s restaurants. Sal Howell is founder and proprietor of two of Canada’s top restaurants: River Café and Deane House.

Howell is a pioneer in the restaurant industry in Canada; she was one of the first restaurateurs to be deeply committed to focusing on local seasonal food, sustainable agriculture and exploring the local ‘terroir’ and ‘taste of place’ of the Prairies, and Canada. At River Café, she ushered in the ‘farm-to-table’ philosophy long ago when she opened the doors in 1991.

This is an impressive achievement, even more so being a woman entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry. Sal and her establishments have received numerous awards of excellence in several categories (River Café is a regular on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurant list). Having not only succeeded but thrived, I wanted to learn a bit more about this impressive woman.

Sal Howell

How did you get started, where did it all begin?

I was new to Calgary and part of the post-Olympic energy. Hospitality wasn’t part of a pre-determined path, though I had worked in the industry. It was more about recognizing an opportunity. I was involved in a few other restaurant projects (Heartland and Mescalero) when what was then a hotdog stand on Prince’s Island Park, came up for public tender by the city. I recognized the romantic potential of the location and put in a bid.

What were some of your challenges?

Being a naturally shy person, public speaking has been a challenge. I’ve since worked very hard at it and learned the skill, but at the beginning, I wasn’t a good advocate and couldn’t express the value of what the restaurant would bring to the park. I could negotiate on the numbers but struggled to define the potential of the restaurant. In the end, it’s about finding a way around any obstruction you face. My father said, “the world is your oyster” and I believed him.

Being a top restaurant for over 25 years is an amazing accomplishment. How do you do it?

After 27 years, our philosophy is that things can always be done better, it can always improve. It’s a profound desire to do the right thing, to do everything the very best. To do the right thing with staff, with ingredients, with sustainability, with the environment.

We make very deliberate and conscious choices about how we source and prepare local ingredients, and champion growers and producers who care for the land as a renewable resource.

River Café

What inspires you?

The natural surroundings of River café, being close to nature. Curating experiences, visual arts, creativity, constantly trying to figure out solutions to the things that aren’t working. I love creating beauty and experiences. I am inspired by the talent of the team I work with, we are always striving to do better, we never rest on our laurels. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What frightens you?

The fear of failure, the fear of financial failure. There is a lot of financial pressure on being an employer, ensuring that revenue and costs are in order.

Failure is always happening, there is always something to solve and fix. It’s constant learning and knowing when it’s okay to move on. Everyone is afraid of failure or looking like a failure. If everything you do is in good faith and well-intentioned, the failure is acceptable. 

Deane House

Any advice for women in business or to women wanting to venture into a new project?

Women often think they are responsible for everything, but you can’t do everything, you can’t wear all the hats. We often feel we need to do more to achieve credibility, to be taken seriously so that no one questions our skills. We often have to go further, when people think you can’t, you prove that you can (as an example, Sal has her Sommelier certification). While it’s important to have the experience of walking in all the shoes, knowing all areas of the business, you need to surround yourself with experts in all fields. One person truly can’t handle everything.

There is always some element of luck involved, however, entrepreneurship is relentless problem solving and certain determination. Not giving up, the harder it gets, the more defiant you become (the Deane House was 17 years in the making, serious determination). It’s about recognizing an opportunity in order to control your own destiny.

Photos courtesy of River Café and Deane House.

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