Partners: From Van Life to Cacao and Coffee Roasters

Katie and Kyle Wilson met in Canada a few months before Katie had to leave for Australia. Kyle soon decided to follow suit and the two spent time traveling, working, and living out of a van Down Under. Now back in Toronto, the Wilsons own and operate Soul Roasters, an eatery that roasts cacao and coffee on-site. Below, Katie and Kyle open up on how they run their business and household, which includes a dog and chickens in the backyard. 

How did you two meet?

Kyle: I was really good friends with her cousin for all my high school days and actually never met Katie until ... When was that? When we went running?

Katie: After university.

Kyle: Yes, after university we both decided to run a half marathon. I always knew of her, but I guess the first time we actually met and hung out was after we both finished that half marathon back in the Niagara region.

Katie: I reached out to him after the half marathon and we kind of just hit it off from there.

Kyle: Right after that, I found out that she was moving to Australia. So dating was cut quite short. Then I quickly made the decision to head down with her. So probably one of our first dates would have been in Australia, traveling around at the hostels. So no real formal date, I guess.

Katie and Kyle Wilson the founders of Soul Chocolate.
Katie and Kyle Wilson in their Toronto storefront and roastery. Shuang Esther Shan

What is a typical date night?

Katie: We never really say, “We're going to have a date night.” For us, it’s more about planning every day, relaxing, and just being aware of one another and appreciating one another.

Kyle: Well, a good example is that yesterday was actually our anniversary, so we just ended up getting some Scotch and burgers and brought that out in the backyard where our animals are.

What would be your dream date night?

Katie: I think maybe going up to the cottage for a weekend. That would be it for me.

Kyle: Me too. I would love to spend some time on the water and maybe kayak and have an early morning coffee and just enjoy each other and our surroundings.

When did you realize you could also be business partners?

Katie: When we were in Australia, we both worked at a hostel and its bar. We lived on top of the hostel too. Through that, we knew we could work together and live together. And then we also lived in a van in New Zealand for a month. It was super small quarters and we were fine. Eventually, when we came back and lived in Toronto, we both knew that we wanted to start our own thing. So it just went from there.

Kyle: It’s been pretty seamless because I feel like our focuses are slightly different. Whereas for me, I’ve got these big ideas, and I need to have someone to have a more realistic perspective for balance. I find Katie to be really focused on procedures and the production side, where I normally don’t like doing that stuff. It’s the day-to-day things that are hugely important to the success of a business, which I clearly am not really huge into, so it worked out great.

A selection of bean to bar chocolates by Soul Chocolate.
A selection of Soul Chocolate’s sign origin bean to bar chocolates. Shuang Esther Shan

A lot of people would say business and romance don’t quite mix well. How do you feel about that?

Kyle: I can see how they can bleed together, and if you don’t stay conscious of it then you’ll only talk about work. It’s a constant effort to put work aside when you’re done and then focus on the actual relationship at hand. When things don’t go right at work, you get to see someone’s real personality and there’s no holding back. It’s a different disagreement versus working with a partner that you’re not in a relationship with, because you know how to cut to the core of someone. So it can work out good and bad.

Katie: I think because our values line up, we’re pretty much the same person. I could already tell that his interests complemented mine so we can focus on different areas of the business. So, there wasn’t any hesitation to start a business together. 

Have you felt differently about working with each other throughout the years?

Kyle: I feel the same as I did on Day 1—still excited, but it’s definitely taken on a different shape than when we started.

Katie: I would say the definition of our roles has become more concrete and structured. We’re learning, as the years pass, where our true strengths are. So instead of both of us writing invoices, for example, one of us is in charge of that. 

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Share a sticky situation you’ve run into together, either personally or professionally. How did you overcome it?

Kyle: It mostly boils down to approaching a concept. Katie might not like it, or she loves it and I don’t, that’s where the hurdles lie, because it feels like it’s personal. But it’s really more of just understanding that it’s about the business. That is something we are constantly learning. 

Katie: Usually it comes down to tweaking things. Our pallets are a bit different, so the tasting notes for new chocolate or how sweet something should be are things we need to come to an agreement on. Sometimes we ask an employee what they think, and then narrow it down to three tasting notes that are the most apparent for everybody. 

How do you divvy up the responsibilities within the business and within your family life? 

Katie: I think for Kyle, on the business side, he’s more focused on being the machinery technician.

Kyle: But I also gravitate more toward the larger picture: Emails, trying to build growth in different ways—

Katie: Executing new ideas.

Kyle: Obviously, I don’t only do things that I’m interested in or else I’d scrap emails altogether, but I can hammer through 20, 30 emails pretty fast. So I focus a bit more on that versus wrapping chocolate, where Katie can probably double my speed. 

Katie: My focus is definitely on the production side. Managing and maintaining organization. And doing outreach by taking in new orders and writing the invoices for those.

Kyle: At home we have preferences. I prefer to cook dinner versus walk the dog, so it works out rather well, because Katie would rather walk the dog than cook dinner. 

Katie: Yeah, I agree. We try to be pretty efficient overall, whether it’s at home or at work. 

When you have disagreements, do you approach them differently at work versus at home?

Kyle: I think it’s hard not to approach it the same way. It’s hard because it might not come across nicely or as professional around any of the staff, so you have to take a step back.

Tins of cocoa powder from Soul Chocolate.
Soul Choclate’s cocoa powder is sourced from Kokoa Kamili, an organization focused on fairness for farmers and economic development for rural Tanzanian communities. Soul Chocolate 

What does work-life balance mean for the two of you?

Katie: Having a balance of what we feel energizes us at home. So, for example, ensuring that we have time to tend to our garden in the backyard, our dogs, and chickens. Having the ability to create a little magical place in the back of the house is important to us. And then still having that balance between that and work. Everyone’s hustling and being efficient but, at the same time, being happy and enjoying what they’re doing.

Kyle: For me, maybe once a week, just waking up and being able not to have to run somewhere, so if I can have the option to sleep in. Turning on my Nintendo Switch and just chilling out for a bit is probably the balance I need for my life, because that usually means that everything else is done and I have some idle time.

Do you have any business goals or personal goals that you’ve set together?

Kyle: For business, we both want to have some land where we can grow what we need for ourselves and enough to sustain a business. We’re from the Niagara region, so we’d love to get back there and open up a business on the wine route and just be a little more connected to our surroundings. That’s a longer-term goal I would say.

Katie: That one’s really been our main focus, especially on the sustainable side. We would like to be able to recycle our own water that we’re using in business and at home.

What has been the biggest success, and how did you celebrate?

Kyle: Just continuing to grow and shift the business where we feel necessary. Not giving up. I feel like that relies heavily on persistence, and sometimes it’s hard. I think that’s probably the biggest victory.

Katie: I would definitely agree with Kyle. Another thing would be opening our retail space. Before this, we were renting out space in a commercial kitchen and just doing wholesale. So the ability to jump from wholesale to retail and have our own space where people can see us making chocolate in the back, allowing us to educate them on bean-to-bar chocolate, is a big success for us. And then just seeing the continual growth and people coming in and saying that they love chocolate. It’s pretty awesome.

And we usually celebrate by taking employees out to grab a drink or take them out for dinner.

Kyle: Especially after a long or hard work week, it’s worth recognizing that everyone’s done a great job and we’re all hustling. Usually, we don’t do too much for just ourselves. I’d rather bring other people into the celebrations.

Header illustration by SHOUT