Salads get a bad reputation. Often seen as bland, un-filling, and uninteresting, they conjure images of wilted, undressed lettuces eaten deskside with plastic forks. But they actually have a lot of potential—just ask Barbora Samieian. The cofounder of Vancouver salad cafeField & Social has elevated the simple dish into an exciting and enticing lunch endeavour.
With three locations around Vancouver and a fourth on the way, Field & Social has tapped into a desire for quick and healthy food that doesn’t sacrifice taste. That means some salads have chicken, cheese, even bacon—all the highest quality, of course—and that house-made dressings are created with plenty of fresh herbs and tangy vinegars.
In between sips of kombucha and waves to her employees at her Dunsmuir location, Samieian discusses her past work in community development, her love of food, and her trick for stealing moments of alone time amidst multiple businesses and two kids.
Before founding Field & Social, you worked for the United Nations. What was that like?
I’m an immigrant kid, I’m from Slovakia; we moved here when I was 12. Living in Vancouver, I was very interested in international relationships and development, so I went to the University of British Columbia and studied that. I ended up working for various non-profits including the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation; while I was in that role, a friend of a friend saw this young professionals program at the UN and he said, “You’ve got to apply, you might be a fit for this.” I never thought I would get in. The full process took almost two years, but I ended up getting a job with the program evaluation office at their headquarters in New York, so I moved there with my husband for three years.
My husband and I knew eventually when we had kids we’d want to move back to Vancouver to be closer to grandparents, and he’s from a very entrepreneurial family, so we dreamed up Field & Social while I was at the tail end of my days at the UN. We were inspired by all the different healthy food options in the U.S. and even Toronto. I didn’t think I would be operating it; I thought it was just a creative outlet and I’d be involved in the design and the branding and all the fun stuff.
We partnered with someone who was operating it, but that ended up not working out, so while I was on maternity leave with my first little guy, I ended up taking it over—becoming the store manager and just going for it. All of a sudden I found myself running a restaurant, and I had no clue what I was doing; I still don’t really have a clue. This is now three years later and here we are: we now have three locations and we’re opening a fourth.
Do you miss the community development work?
I’d like to be involved again in a volunteer capacity, I think, when it comes to international development and community development. It’s still very close to my heart. I was just reading the Gates Foundation’sannual letter, and every time I read that stuff it does tug at my heartstrings. But this [Field & Social] feels like where I’m meant to be; this feels right, too.
I was talking to a mentor recently and trying to rationalize, “What’s my purpose? We just make salads.” And then I thought, “Well, I guess in a way it’s mini community development, it’s mini economic development.” We’re providing employment opportunities and we get to do a lot of cool collaborations, so in a small, mini way, I try to think of it as somehow related to community development.
What does food mean to you?
I love food. We build our travel itineraries around food. To me it’s community, it’s all senses, it’s new experiences, it’s fun. When we conceptualized Field & Social, I never wanted to be doing salads that are so healthy that you can’t really enjoy delicious taste. So that’s a big focus for us. Also, making delicious food that maybe has a cool ingredient that you had when you travelled to the Middle East or Asia, and it brings back some kind of memory.
As a boss of many employees, what do you think makes a good leader?
I think being approachable and trying to insert some fun. I always tell our team, “It’s not that serious, it’s just salads.” Things get busy and we do a lot of volume in the stores, and there can be a lot of pressure. And for some of our team members this is one of their first real jobs, so bringing some lightness to the day—I hope that I can do that.
And I think the second thing would be learning. I tell every single person that we hire, and it doesn’t really matter what position we’re hiring them for: “You’re probably not going to be with Field & Social forever, but while you’re here, what can we do to support you so you can learn?” Maybe they’re studying marketing or maybe they’re studying to be a cook, but just giving everybody a chance to learn.
Amidst all the craziness of being a mom of two and a business owner, how do you take care of yourself?
I really do value alone time, and one of the harder things about becoming a mom is you kind of lose that for most of the day. So once I drop the kids off at daycare I’ll usually take myself for a coffee; I’ll have a coffee to stay at one of the neighbourhood coffee shops, and it’s my moment. Sometimes it’s five minutes and sometimes it’s 20 minutes, but that’s a moment in my day.
It’s work hard, play hard. We love travelling as a family, and this [job] has allowed me to work remotely sometimes, and that always gives me energy.
Where’s next on your list?
I’ve never been to South Africa; Cape Town has been on my mind. And we’re drawn to Europe a lot because we still have family there.
Your family is still in Slovakia?
Yes. We have a family cottage there that I want my kids to get to know.
Let’s talk about your other business: Sundays furniture.
In November, our family started an online furniture company called Sundays; it’s direct-to-consumer with a very small capsule collection starting with the living room. My husband’s family has been in the business for many years and I said to him, “You’re in the furniture business, and still when we go shopping for furniture I’m overwhelmed. There’s so much stuff, I just want someone to curate the most beautiful sofas, the loveliest coffee tables. Can someone just pre-select for me?” He’s a serial entrepreneur for sure, and he was like, “Oh, we should just start one.” So we partnered with a friend from high school and worked with a branding agency from Berlin, which was really cool. And now we’re learning all about ecommerce, and it’s really hard.
It’s definitely been a learning curve. I was most involved with the branding process and to do our first hire, who now is kind of owning the different pieces of the business. My husband and sister-in-law are a little more involved in the day-to-day. It’s been a lot of fun.
In your eyes, what makes a good brand?
I think a certain authenticity, some kind of connection point to the story. I think people are interested in: who are these people? Especially with an ecommerce brand, so that it’s not just out there in the ether. So with Sundays, part of how the name came about is we were always meeting on Sundays because we all have day jobs. And of course Sunday is the day you kind of kick back and relax at home.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
I recently went off Instagram. It’s been amazing, it changed my life. I feel like I have more clarity of mind.
This interview has been edited and condensed.