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Victoria and Paula Watts: Pioneers in Pasta

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Pasta Tavola

Summers for the young Watts sisters – Victoria and Paula – meant trips to Sault Ste. Marie from their Brampton home for extended visits with their mother’s Italian family. The Ferrone grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived on the same street. With open backyards, each family had a vegetable garden accessible to everyone. “That was just such a big part of our life,” says Victoria. “We would spend the summer cooking and we’d have these huge feasts in the basement. And it was not just pasta, but cookies and breads and meats and all of that. We would walk out of Nonna’s into her garden.”

It’s no wonder that when Victoria and Paula grew up and decided to pursue a business venture together, the product they chose to make is Italian food, specifically all-natural specialty pastas, pasta sauces, and oven-ready meals. Pasta Tavola (pasta table) was launched in 2010 on North Front Street in Belleville. Says Victoria, “For us, the pasta table is where Paula and I both learned how to cook extraordinary tasting food but using very simple and pure ingredients. It really is about that community around food. Just having good food. These aren’t historic Italian recipes, but we really do try to replicate as close as possible as you’re going to get to homemade. That really is our goal.”

Victoria was a lawyer who was working in Ottawa before her career brought her to the Quinte area with her husband and two children. Paula had been teaching English abroad for seven years before deciding to return to Canada to be closer to family. Cooking was her way of de-stressing from job pressures and she decided to make that hobby into a career. She worked as a chef on the east coast before Victoria, who was keen to start a business, recruited her sister to join her as partner.

The pair conducted a lot of market research about their business concept before launching. They had an extensive business plan. They were focused on creating a brand that would be recognizable for its quality ingredients, excellent taste, and ease of preparation. They formulated several recipes and started selling them at farmers’ markets. The feedback from customers was invaluable to help them refine their product offerings.

Says Paula, “For Victoria and me – we have very different skillsets – this is a business that not only honours the whole tradition (and the romantic notion of it), but it is a business about making food and food production.”

In addition to being available at the Belleville retail store (where manufacturing also occurs in a 2,500 square foot space), the Pasta Tavola brand can now be found in more than 100 locations throughout Ontario. The products sell in the natural food specialty channel, so they’re found in the natural food section of retail outlets like Sobey’s, Metro, and Whole Foods, where they offer Pasta Tavola frozen pastas as well as sauces in pouches and jars. The Belleville retail store also offers fresh pastas and trays and some specialty products from other local companies.

“We had some great support with some of the restaurants in the area and they’ve been with us from the beginning, as well as some of the local specialty stores in the Quinte region and throughout eastern Ontario,” says Victoria. “Probably year three or four is when we started moving eastward out of our area and getting a lot more traction. Now, we go north to Muskoka and North Bay. We’ve just started launching more into the Toronto and St. Catharines areas. Our goal is to make it a national brand. Right now, we’re taking it a province at a time.”

They’re learning as they go. They admit it took a few years to really learn how to run a business. They also started out making all their products by hand, which they quickly realized was unsustainable when demand increased. They reached capacity about three years ago, so they had to look at how they could increase efficiency. With the assistance of Quinte Economic Development Commission, Trenval Business Development Corporation, and provincial and federal government programs, they have been able to bring in more equipment and staff to scale up production. A significant upgrade was made last year to increase capacity.

“All of the production we do for our frozen line is done in our back production space,” says Paula. “Compared to large companies, we are a small batch operation. We still consider ourselves to be a from-scratch kitchen however, it’s transposed into a larger manufacturing facility. When we upgraded to new equipment, we did an overhaul of all our processes to become more efficient. Recipes had to be overhauled as well to be able to produce that product.” The investment increased Pasta Tavola’s output by more than 35 per cent, ensuring the timely supply of product to their expanding wholesale and retail customer base.

Victoria proudly points out she and Paula are well-connected with their customers and suppliers. They utilize fresh ingredients from local farmers and cheese makers, which has earned them Foodland Ontario certification. Because the sisters do much of the front-line work themselves (sales, delivery, etc.), they have built strong relationships in the communities they serve. They also continually work at monitoring trends and responding to customer requests.

“People are becoming way more knowledgeable and we are pressed on it,” says Victoria. “We are transparent, and we’ve maintained that, I think, through the years. We always said we weren’t going to be competing with the large, super pasta places. That’s not where we fit. But if you’re someone who appreciates good food, wants to know it’s been made with care and with good quality ingredients and it’s clean – those are our customers.”

The sisters were getting some pushback about how natural some of the cheeses were in their pastas. Although they were not putting any additives or preservatives with the cheeses, some inherently had these in their processing. As a result, the partners re-formulated some of their pastas to substitute goat’s milk and cow’s milk yogurt for some of the cheeses previously used. “It makes for a very clean ingredients list,” says Victoria. “You can pronounce everything in the list. You know exactly what you’re eating. It has a lower fat content and a higher protein content. It’s unique and we’re really proud of it.”

The most popular Pasta Tavola product is the frozen ravioli. Of the eight flavours offered, the Three Cheese, the Roasted Butternut Squash with Smoked Gouda and the Gourmet Mushroom are the top sellers. All the products feature seven or fewer ingredients. Victoria also boasts about the sauces they offer, “They are really versatile. We have a Rustic Siciliana that’s great as a salsa. I use the Spicy Arrabbiata for a marinade. I like things that are versatile. I add it to a chili. I add it to soups. It’s not complex flavours; just very simple, but delicious. It’s great with the pasta and it’s great without.”

The partners have a few new recipes in the research and development pipeline which are being kept under wraps for now. They readily admit the path from recipe idea to store shelf can be a complicated one requiring a significant investment of time and money.

One of their longstanding customers is Sobey’s grocery store in Picton, where franchisee Jamie Yeo is enthusiastic about potential new Pasta Tavola products coming down the line. “Every time they have a new item and they want me to try it, it always does really well. I’ve never had any that failed, so I’d always be willing to try one of their new items.” Jamie has a very good working relationship with the Pasta Tavola team. He commends them for their high-quality products and their excellent communication with him as a customer.

Paula and Victoria clearly thrive on what they’re doing. They speak with passion about bringing their childhood memories and family values to life in their business and their eyes sparkle when talking about future possibilities for Pasta Tavola.

“The thing with us is we really safeguard those inherent values of real food, pure ingredients, very simple, convenient to prepare – things you’re really proud to feed your family,” says Victoria. “We think we’ve done a really good job and people are really noticing. We want to grow our company as companies do, but I think it’s really important – that’s the key to our success –to be able to safeguard that integrity of the brand.”