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Chef Meagan Bowden on Catering, COVID-19, and the Importance of Building a Strong Community

Growing up, Chef Meagan Bowden was surrounded by delicious food and exemplary hospitality. In addition to having a mother who was an epic host, she had a part-time gig that she didn’t dread—making mile-high meat sandwiches in a grocery store deli. 

It would seem logical that she was destined to have a career in the foodservice industry, and though she meandered down a different path in university, after graduating from Ryerson University’s journalism program, Bowden eventually found her way back to food. She spent her days fresh out of school in the kitchen instead of the newsroom, cutting her teeth while working for Oliver & Bonacini and  Drake 150. While there, she soaked up all the industry knowledge she could and dabbled in catering on the side.

Fast forward to 2016, and Phancy Food & Catering, Bowden’s Toronto-based business was born. The business is a testament to her deep-rooted passion for food and hospitality. 

Comfort food is the heart and soul of Phancy Food & Catering. “We dress up the classics,”  she explained. “I like to create foods that are nostalgic, help people create a new memory,  and put an emphasis on flavour.”

Bowden is a determined chef with strong business acumen and loads of talent. Her self-proclaimed specialty? Cocktail appetizers, which she whimsically refers to as, “little parcels of joy.”

Her self-proclaimed specialty? Cocktail appetizers, which she whimsically refers to as, “little parcels of joy.”

In fact, in a 2019 culinary competition organized by the Consulate General of France in Toronto, Elles sont Food, and you?, Bowden took home multiple awards for her impressive canapés—and it was her first culinary competition. The winning bites included a Devil’s Rock Creamy Blue Cheese brioche with pickled jalapeño peppers and a cacao and chicken liver pâté crostini accented with gooseberry.

For Bowden, the outlook was sunny in 2019. Her business was thriving and she had just been nominated for best caterer by NOW Magazine Reader’s Choice.

However, things took a drastic turn when the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world in early 2020. In a matter of days, it was like the foodservice industry had been hit by a bullet train. Small businesses like hers were faced with two choices in order to survive: close or pivot. This was a stark contrast from Bowden’s pre-pandemic life, where she often had a packed calendar of catering orders for corporate events, large weddings, and fancy soirées.

“My business really deteriorated when the pandemic hit,” she said. “It was sad to see the whole company come to a halt and it was hard to muster up the energy to do anything about it.” With a catering volume of less than half of what it was pre-pandemic, Bowden was forced to shift, adapt and diversify her business. So, in the fall of 2020, Bowden launched her first online shop, Phancy’s Bodega.

A quick scroll through the shop’s pages will make anyone salivate. From a monstrous mortadella pie sandwich to festive dinners with all the fixings, Phancy’s Bodega has plenty of delicious offerings that are available for curbside pickup or delivery. In addition to prepared foods—the bread and butter of her business—the online shop has a unique selection of Canadian-made and Toronto-focused gourmet products. Bowden proudly stocks her virtual shelves with local and unique items, such as albacore pesto tuna from Scout Canning, beet tahini from Parallel Brothers, and Cool Melon seltzer from City Seltzer.

“Having the shop has sparked my creativity,” she mentioned. “Over the course of the last year, I’ve found joy in creating food in a more personalized and intimate way. I can incorporate local products into a package or a nice spread.” For example, Bowden uses a meaty pasta sauce from Montreal-based Stefano in her date night for two pasta kit.

Her biggest seller, by far, has been the high tea kit for two, which she created on a whim. It’s a perfectly assembled package of ready-to-eat finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, preserves from Provisions Food Company, and tea, along with cute napkins. An aromatic muffuletta finger sandwich that’s equal parts familiar, comforting and dainty is just one of the sandwich selections in the kit. Due to its overwhelming popularity, Bowden envisions selling the kit in local cafés one day—or perhaps even opening a brick and mortar shop of her own.

While there are currently no plans in the works, she often dreams of finding the perfect spot to set up shop. “I would love to find a corner spot in the middle of a residential neighborhood so I can directly serve that neighbourhood with food staples, comforting food and drinks, and a place for the community to gather.”

After the pandemic, Bowden feels strongly that there will still be a market for at-home experiences—at least in the short-term— and the high tea kit could serve as a new revenue stream with some further tweaks. “Upgrading the high tea kit to include fancy dishware that people could keep and hosting high tea-themed parties would be a great way to incorporate catering with the kits,” she shared.

From the launch of Phancy’s Bodega to creating innovative product offerings and forging new partnerships, Bowden has become all too familiar with trial and error. In the pandemic’s early days, Bowden teamed up with two other female food entrepreneurs and launched a barbeque takeout pop-up called 852 Curbside Collective.

“It was my first time having an online platform and doing delivery, and there were so many new things to navigate,” she mentioned, casually referring to the experience as a “pandemic training course.”

We started the whole thing with no long-term plan in sight because we literally didn’t know what the next month would hold with the constant changes in lockdown,” she said. “It was exciting, challenging, fun and exhausting all at once.”

While the learning curve was steep, and, ultimately, the business didn’t pan out, Bowden expressed that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t teamed up with these women. “Ultimately, I have no regrets. Everything serves a purpose in life and that leads to the next step,” she said.

That sense of community—especially with other women in the industry—has been crucial to Bowden’s career success thus far, as well as her mental survival while navigating COVID-19’s choppy waters. Bowden has long been a passionate advocate for female and female-identifying entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry. In 2018, the Female Foodie Entrepreneur Meetup was born of her desire to provide a support system for like-minded individuals. Pre-pandemic, Bowden organized monthly meetings for people to connect, problem-solve and learn from each other. “At our last event before the pandemic, we had four women with different backgrounds share their stories about working in the industry,” she mentioned. “It was so cathartic for everyone to open up and share their stories.”

Like many others in the industry, Bowden has leaned on her community more than ever throughout the past year—and she would offer the same advice to fellow entrepreneurs. “I’ve learned firsthand that having a good community around you will help you get through the tough times,” she openly expressed. “Help others when you are able to and you will likely receive support in return if you are surrounded by like-minded people.” With strength in numbers, Bowden has no doubt that once the pandemic dust settles, the foodservices industry will rebuild, grow and thrive once again.

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