River Café’s Sal Howell pairs a united team with value and innovation to create Calgary cornerstones
Independant Restaurateur of The Year
Sal Howell, proprietor of Calgary hotspots River Café and Boxwood, paints a vibrant picture of award-winning hospitality at her restaurants every day. Just imagine sipping Kettle Valley Merlot while biting into Diamond Willow organic beef tenderloin, confit potato, butternut squash, poplar bluff heirloom beets and chèvre sabayon, in a warm wood-detailed room featuring windows that open to Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park. It’s the setting at River Café, and although the owner is mum about sales numbers, its appeal as a local institution is no secret, garnering award after award, for its romantic ambiance, food and overall appeal.
Howell has certainly found an outlet for the creativity she nurtured, studying fine arts at Sackville, N.B.’s Mount Allison University, in River Café’s open-hearth fieldstone fireplace, original rawhide iron light fixtures and dining-room chairs fashioned out of willow and bark-on hickory twigs. The Welsh native’s zeal for foodservice began more than 20 years ago when she graduated from university and headed west to work on various projects, eventually becoming part of the Calgary-based Mescalero Group, which formed a few restaurants, including the Italian mainstay Teatro and River Café.
There’s no mistaking the restaurant has been her labour of love since it opened as “little snack-bar concession” in 1991. Howell remembers those early days at River Café fondly. “We put tables and chairs outside and turned the inside into a kitchen where we could service the tables, but only when the weather cooperated; it had a roof structure but no walls inside,” she explains, recalling the days when guests huddled under the overhang to escape fierce Alberta downpours.
“In 1995 we re-opened and completely transformed the building and put in these beautiful custom-built wood windows that open up the entire building,” says Howell, speaking of the café before it became her focus as primary owner in 2004.
The 43-year-old, who counts locovores Frederique and Sinclair Philip of B.C.’s Sooke Harbour House as mentors, wanted to serve seasonal regional cuisine, which, she admits, was a lot harder to source 15 years ago. “The reality was not a lot of true local food was available; that was a journey in itself. We now buy direct from more than 70 local producers in Alberta and B.C.,” she says proudly, alluding to present-day chef Andrew Winfield’s menu, which includes dishes such as Albacore tuna conserva with grilled chard, marinated chickpeas and roasted chanterelles ($19) for lunch, and Sunworks Farm organic chicken breast with roasted local radishes, creamed quinoa, grilled zucchini and pickled peaches ($37) for dinner.
It was Howell’s sustainable mandate that attracted the attention of the Calgary-based national sustainable foodservice outfit LEAF (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice), which named River Café Canada’s first LEAF-certified restaurant after an internal audit earlier this year. “River Café is known in Calgary for its local high-quality food, and they’ve been executing a lot of sustainability initiatives for years,” says Janine Bolton, president of LEAF. “It’s a philosophy Sal ingrains [into her staff].”
The list of environmental strategies that contributed to the certificationis extensive. It begins in the kitchen with the best sustainable food from local farmers as well as lush greens, herbs and flowers picked from the restaurant’s edible garden; some of which can be canned and stored, too. In the dining room, the wrap-around windows provide enough natural light to negate the need for electrical lighting, a decision, which generated enough savings to offset the costs of implementing 100 per cent green energy power. Outside, Howell has low-water landscaping and encourages staff to take public transit or cycle.
The list goes on (and on), proving the proprietor recognizes a need for constant organic growth. “She was very open to taking sustainability initiatives another step further,” says Bolton, whose auditors also offer recommendations. “She’s one of the most innovative restaurateurs in Calgary and is always looking to see what else she can do.”
This past fall she found something else to do, launching Boxwood, which has already earned LEAF’s highest certification. “I wasn’t looking to start another restaurant a year and a half ago,” admits Howell, of the casual cousin to River Café, which sits inside Calgary’s Central Memorial Park. “The location and the opportunity was extraordinary. It gives us only 880 square feet, and it’s essentially the size of a kiosk, but we created it with 42 seats inside,” she says of the restaurant that features counter-style seating and ordering.
Chef Andy Bujak worked with Howell to build a deconstructed menu, with a rôtisserie as the centerpiece and a wealth of vegetarian sides and salads. Already, the Spragg Farm spit-roasted porchetta sandwich ($10) routinely sells out and other meals such as Driview Farms Lamb with roasted tomatillo salsa verde ($15) and faro salad with butternut squash, fennel and arugula ($7), have been lauded.
“We wanted to be able to serve the kind of quality food we’re dedicated to at River Café, but in a less formal way,” says Howell of the eatery that’s winning rave reviews for its attentive service and nature-loving digs. “In doing counter-service and takeout and running of the food [to tables after ordering], we were able to reduce some of the cost, and we passed on the savings in how we priced the menu.
” It’s been a busy but exciting time for Howell and her team. Boxwood’s out-of-the-gate success also created new opportunities for River Café staff. “It was a bit of a splicing of the team,” says Howell. “Andy Bujak, who’s the chef at Boxwood, was pastry chef on and offat River Café…for 10 years, and he was ready for a new position.”
Bujak was able to take some other kitchen staff with him, and Kristi Peters Snider, GM of River Café for almost 10 years, has been busy helping out at the new eatery, too.
The team-dynamic Howell fosters is obvious: “We seem to attract likeminded people who are interested in our values and our philosophy,” says Peters Snider. “That was what really struck me in the early days, working with Sal. I had gone from working in several business environments that were very bottom-line driven, whereas with Sal —that’s certainly a component, she’s a smart businesswoman — but it’s also about people and what makes them happy.” In fact, the GM recently had a chance to achieve her own personal goals, with a little help.
A couple of years ago, Peters Snider signed on to get her masters in Environment and Management through an online program for fulltime professionals at Royal Roads University in Victoria. Howell stepped up to the plate when the student decided to investigate the carbon footprint of imported foodstuff compared to River Café’s foodstuff purchased from local farmers. “I met with Sal and discussed my ideas with her and she was enthusiastic and supportive,” says the GM, who needed permission to use the restaurant as a case study and ended up getting one paid day a week to do research.
Supporting her restaurant family and community seems second nature to Howell, who sees such opportunities as an outlet to ignite passion in staff. The cellar and bar managers became certified sommeliers while working at River Café and Boxwood’s Bujak recently traveled to Italy for Terra Madre, the international Slow-Food conference. Plus, the Slow Food Calgary proponent hosts an annual post-harvest dinner for her producers and supports the Calgary Arts Community.
It’s no wonder the staff keep going back. Peters Snider, for example, started as a server in the mid-’90s before returning in 2001. “There have been many, many key people throughout the life of River Café,” stresses Howell. “We have a great network of alumni all over the country, and we hear from them.” In fact, two former employees returned this past summer to get married at the restaurant where they met. “It was such a great homecoming,” says Howell.
“The success of any restaurant is about human resources. It is people who bring hospitality to life. My role, on many levels, is to create the stage, and the atmosphere and the ideas and the concepts,” says the proprietor who also stresses her focus on providing the best dining experience. “River Café has a very strong reputation, and we’ve seen a lot of growth [by] staying focused on never going stale, always being open to being innovative, being creative and being interested and aware.”
The proprietor is already planning her next big project: a revitalization plan with the city of Calgary to improve a joint public bathroom at River Café, create the city’s first edible green roof, introduce new infrastructure and add additional resto seating. But, there’s no doubt, this restaurateur will still find time to stop and smell the begonias in the edible garden with a couple of her greatest accomplishments — her twin toddlers.
photography by roth & ramberg