A recipe for success

“Cora never follows a recipe for anything,” says Coupal, executive vice-president for the Cora franchise group. “She’ll get an idea, improvise and make it her own.”

Unlike most CEOs, Cora is also disarmingly frank, which must drive her PR people mad. She admits freely that while Cora’s restaurants specialize in breakfasts, she never touches breakfast herself. “Just coffee,” she says. “Maybe a piece of fruit.”

But don’t underestimate Cora as a businessperson, says David Polny, vice-president of franchise development for the Cora Group. He says Cora successfully combines her nurturing instincts with her business savoir faire. “Our annual Christmas party is at Cora’s house, where she cooks Greek food for about 60 of us from head office and won’t let us lift a finger,” says Polny. A couple of Christmases ago, she sent baklava, which she baked in her own home, to all the franchisees across Canada.

Cora’s dream as a young girl was certainly not to open a restaurant. Born to parents of Belgian and German background in the small town of Caplan in Quebec’s picturesque Gaspésie, Cora wanted to become a writer or a professor of philosophy. Her father, a soap salesman, wanted his eldest daughter to become a good secretary. It took several family fights before he agreed to let her continue school to study the classics, including literature, poetry, Latin, Greek and art history. Cora wasn’t a party girl, but while dropping some girlfriends off at a dance, the attractive blue-eyed blond met a dark, handsome, older Greek man who became her first boyfriend. At 20, she found herself pregnant and dropped out of school to marry the 31-year-old.

The couple had three children within four years, but the marriage was an unhappy one. “He was a traditional macho man, and I was an intellectual,” Cora says. “It was very tough, very bad.” She says he wouldn’t allow her to get a job, visit her parents or read books. “The day after I got married, my husband made me burn my diaries,” she says, her voice heavy with sadness. “He said women who write are devils.”

Cora channelled her creativity through her hands. She sewed clothes for the whole family, did embroidery, made stuffed animals and puppets for the kids and learned Greek-style cooking from an elderly neighbour. Before long, this young Québécoise was whipping up hearty moussaka, fragrant stuffed vine leaves and flaky spinach-and-feta pies. Trying to be an obedient wife, Cora tolerated her husband’s preferential treatment of their sons over their daughter, until one day when everything changed: “He hit my daughter. She was not even guilty, but he would never hit his boys. I said, ‘This is enough.’ A new me was born that day.” After a huge argument, her husband decided to go back to Greece, and Cora was left with three kids to support and a little house she couldn’t afford to keep.

Cora needed to work, but nobody would hire the 34-year-old single mother. “I applied to be a saleslady in a clothing store, but I was not very stylish,” she recalls. “I applied to work in a bank, but they told me I had too many years of education.” Cora, ever resourceful, realized she had to create her own job. Her only marketable skill was cooking, so she sold her house, moved herself and the kids into an apartment and used the profits to buy a tiny neighbourhood snack bar. She had no restaurant experience at all yet now found herself working every day from before dawn till 11 p.m., while her kids largely fended for themselves. Her daughter, Gigi Tsouflidis, now 38, recalls, “Mom was like a tank. She’d get up early in the morning, work all day, come home late, then crash on the couch with a bunch of cookbooks.”