- Name: Toben Kochman and Elana Kochman
- Company: TOBEN Food by Design
- Years in Business: 18
So how’d you both get started?
Toben: I started cooking at age 18 at a small pizzeria. I loved the energy of the professional kitchen and have continued cooking ever since. I worked in a number of different restaurants before starting a small dinner party/catering business with my incredible sister Elana. She handled the front of house/logistics and we formed a dynamic duo. At that time there were not many individuals in catering that had fine dining experience like Elana and I did.
Elana: When Toben asked me to join him, I had just come out of art school, but had worked in restaurants throughout high school and university. Over the course of the first two years, we held other jobs while catering on the side out of our mom’s kitchen. After the two years, we left our full-time jobs and pursued the catering business full time.
Tell us about your first big break.
Our first big break after starting up was winning the bid for the CIBC Mellon holiday party. This was a 400-person event hosted in their banking hall and required a full kitchen build out, extensive staffing, and a customized menu. The event was such a success that we subsequently won the bid for the 7 remaining years the event was held. Ultimately, the event became the hallmark of what our team was built on. We became known for being an extremely detail-oriented, reliable, and trusted vendor for large affairs.
What was the hardest part about starting your own business? What do you find most rewarding?
Starting a business has its own unique set of challenges. You learn a lot as you go and must adapt quickly based on what you’re learning. The hardest part of starting our own business was gaining the trust of our clientele, while the most rewarding part was seeing how happy our clients were once they had experienced our catering and event services.
However, what’s even harder is maintaining the business as it grows and continues to evolve with the changing industry. Keeping consistency in offerings while continuing to be innovative is an integral part of growth. Most importantly, you need a high-quality team to achieve this. You can hold a vision for your business, but the only way to grow is if you surround yourself with people who share the same vision.
What’s most rewarding about watching our business grow is seeing the success of and happiness of our team and being a part of their success.
How did COVID affect the business? What have you had to change since?
Covid was difficult on many industries, but specifically, the events industry took a big hit. Since large gatherings were not possible, we had to adapt quickly. We started a home delivery service of gourmet prepared meals, TOBEN at Home, that has stood the test of time and still exists today. Covid also gave us the opportunity to take a bird’s eye view of how to better service our clients, integrate new software systems, and revamp our menus. Luckily, we’ve bounced back nicely and even grown/started new projects since Covid ended.
It’s not always easy working with family. What sort of challenges do you encounter? How do you go about resolving them?
Family or not, partnering with someone when starting a business is fraught with challenges. Some people think that it’s more challenging working with family but the truth is – at least for us – that you can be brutally honest with your family (arguably more so than you would with a friend/partner) in the hopes that this honesty brings you closer to your goals, which for us, it did. Although we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, which we both view as a positive, the difference in perspectives forces us to rethink or challenge our own ideas. We have a mutual respect for each other and always have the same end goal and core beliefs when it comes to our company and its growth.
Learning from failure is a valuable and inevitable part of most entrepreneurial journeys. Looking back, what failure are you now grateful for given the lessons learned?
There was a large-scale wedding that we catered at a banquet hall in which we had no control over the staffing company used. The staffing team did not have experience in pre-selected plated dinner service, which in turn led to significant day-of problems, including not having the proper dish for each guest. The lesson this taught us was to make sure we organize staff where we can. In rare instances where the venue or client hires their own staff, we have to educate the client and manage expectations on how it can affect service.
What drives you to keep pushing further?
Toben: Learning new recipes and food techniques, working with my team to collaborate on new ideas, and creating special experiences for our clients that will serve as memories to last a lifetime.
Elana: I love to solve problems and create things. I think the catering industry is always changing and I love the challenge of solving problems when it comes to each unique event. Whether that includes working on a bid and finding the most creative way to showcase our food in line with a theme, or sharpening the pencil and working on a budget while still maintaining quantity and variety; I take on each event as a challenge and a problem to solve.
What’s one big tip you would give to up-and-comers in the industry?
Toben: Keep investing in your business. Keep taking the time to listen to your team and understand their perspective. Treat every individual event as if it’s your first and last, no matter the size and scope!
Elana: Work hard and stay the course. There’s going to be a lot of challenges along the way, but just keep pushing through. If you believe in what you have to offer and that it’s special, keep going and it’ll get into the right hands. If it’s something special, people will take notice.
And now for the Bonus Round…
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up (and how does it relate to what you do now)?
Toben: I dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player. I think I always loved both physical and cerebral activities. My profession as both a chef and entrepreneur require both these attributes.
Elana: I wanted to be a makeup artist or fashion designer. I ended up going to art school, and while there, I found there was a lot of problem solving involved in large art pieces. Even though it is a completely different field, I find that within the catering industry there’s the same parallel, we are always problem solving.
What was your first job in the industry?
Toben: Washing dishes at a small pizzeria called Il Fornello.
Elana: Waitress at Cafe Nervosa during university.
You wouldn’t be you without…
Toben: Becoming a father which has taught me patience, humility, better communication, and a drive to succeed to make a better life for them.
Elana: Hot chocolate before bed. This is my “me time”.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Toben: To travel all over Mexico and eat every kind of taco and street food.
Elana: I’ve always wanted to go to Australia. I love the landscape, weather, and food.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Toben: Anthony Bourdain. He was my hero as a young chef. He saw the world with beautiful eyes and made everyone around him feel unique and special. He seems like he’d make for great and very easy company at a dinner table and you know he had a bottomless pit for great food!
Elana: My grandmother. She passed away 8 years ago. She always loved our food. She was a strong woman and female entrepreneur herself. It would be great to catch up and fill her in on everything that has happened the past few years. I know she would have loved to see how far we have come.
What’s your one guilty pleasure you enjoy too much to give up?
Toben: Salty snacks! I could polish off a bag of popcorn, kettle chips or good cheese/crackers in a heartbeat.
If you could retire anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Toben: I would say somewhere on a beach – waking up every morning to the sound of the ocean and exercising at sunrise is something I’ve always dreamed of doing. And hopefully there’s a golf course nearby as that is another great passion of mine.
Elana: Somewhere warm, perhaps on a farm.
What’s the first thing you do when you open your eyes in the morning?
Elana: Turn off my alarm and check if my 6 year has snuck into my bed in the night!
What are you currently binge-watching?
What was the last fun thing you bought?
Toben: A cottage up north in Bala. It’s a dream come true.