2006 Alumni

Young Entrepreneur Northeast

Patricia Vecchio

Patricia VecchioThere were plenty of blank looks when Patricia Vecchio floated the idea that she wanted to start her own coffeehouse.
A blue-collar town like Sault Ste. Marie isn't known for its Bohemian, cappuccino-drinking crowds and only a few people believed she could succeed.

Surely it would've been easier for the graduate of Algonquin College's business program, and the unofficial Swiss Chalet school of dining room management, to pick up a Second Cup franchise?

"I made up my mind that it was going to be my own concept."

She envisioned a comfy, cozy place furnished with couches, arm chairs and computers that was kind of a crossover between a Starbucks-Chapter's book outlet she frequented in Calgary, and the intimate caf_s she knew from Toronto.

"A lot of people didn't know what I was talking about," says the Sudbury-born, Blind River-raised owner of the Steamy Bean Coffee Company. "There was no place like that when we moved here."

Certainly the banks were less than enthusiastic with her vision. "I didn't get a penny. I don't think they believed in the concept either."

But the 34-year-old mother of three wanted to create a kind of sensory experience, for customers and employees alike, that was conducive to good conversation, provided a relaxing place to read while sipping a latt_ or listen to great live music with a glass of wine. Unlike the nearby fast food joints, her menu of healthy, wholesome food offers organic coffees and herbal teas, nutritious soups and salads and whole-wheat wraps.

Since opening in November 2002, Steamy Bean has become a gathering place for breakfast clubs, for professionals to meet their clients and community groups like the Sign Language Cafe for the hearing impaired to meet.

"The coffee is secondary," says Vecchio.

She estimates sales have doubled every year since first opening, thanks in part to a growing catering business.

But egad, couldn't she have picked a better spot? Two doors up is the coffee-brewing behemoth, Tim Hortons, where the drive-through line-ups stretch out onto Great Northern Road.

Vecchio remains unfazed.

"They've created this market. Because of them, I'm able to be here."

Situated in a former Robin's Donuts building near one of the city's busiest intersections, she mans her drive-through window every morning, siphoning off the Tim Hortons overflow for those impatient drivers in urgent need of their a.m. java fix.

Along the way, she built up her 12-employee company into a diversified venture with a growing catering and gift basket business.

Vecchio's nominators describe her as "ambitious and driven" and a passionate "visionary" savvy enough to understand every aspect of her business. Despite her share of challenges, friends say she is single-minded in focus and is very solution-oriented.

While attending school in Ottawa and working as a Swiss Chalet dining room manager, Vecchio realized on-the-job sweat equity was the only way to success in the restaurant business.

She met her future husband Orelio at work and together they moved to Calgary to each get their own Swiss Chalet franchise.

The birth of her entrepreneurial spirit coincided with the arrival of their first child. She came to a crossroads, wanting to raise her child and work reduced hours. When a Swiss Chalet franchise became available in the Sault, they jumped at the opportunity. Orelio was named the manager, but Vecchio wasn't interested in just helping out.

"I had a whole handful of ideas in my head of things I wanted to do."

She first entertained the concept while visiting Toronto coffee shops, stealing the best ideas that appealed to her.

After opening in 2002, there were lean months where the couple had spent most of their money on renovations. It took several more months to slowly build up a clientðle of regulars.

Together with her mother Paulette LeBlanc, "my not-so-silent business partner," they poured a fresh injection of money into the shop, running up a few credit cards, "and hoping it was the right decision."

She credits much of her success to mom, a retired government bureaucrat, who works the evening shift and is her cheesecake and soup-making guru.

LeBlanc suggested baking their own goods after local food suppliers wouldn't take on new orders. She also does most of the promotional and website work and auditions the local musicians that perform on Sunday and Monday nights.

The Steamy Bean also accepts co-op students from high schools and Vecchio spends time training special-needs kids.

She's also learned a valuable lesson for any fledgling entrepreneur: say yes to any job that comes your way.

Can you do a late-minute luncheon for 20 people for noon today? Sure, no problem.

Do you do Christmas gift baskets? Absolutely. "We've never refused a request." To Vecchio, it was her customers' way of cryptically sending her a message.

"Sometimes you gotta take your clues from the customer from the questions you're asked. And if you have a sense there's a market there, you start doing it.

"Some of the stuff we were asked to do, we had no clue how we were going to pull it off."

They delved into the wine and cheese business because somebody asked them to cater an event for 300 people.

"We accepted. 'Of course we do.' We'll figure out the logistics later."

She admits running your own business "is not for the weak of stomach, that's for sure." But she has ambitious plans to soon open a second Sault location and someday venture into the Toronto market.

The biggest pitfall she finds most entrepreneurs experience is getting discouraged.

"You do go through times in your life where you reach a lull. You have these goals and sometimes there's progress and sometimes you either stop or take a step backwards.

"And it's very easy to throw your hands up and say 'this is too hard, it's not working out.' The one thing I've done well is persevere and stay with it. My focus never wavered. I never questioned or doubted it and had some things that didn't work out, but somehow it's never deterred me."

www.steamybean.com

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