Nicole Sawatsky’s aversion to eggs was so strong in culinary school that she used to have her classmate — and future husband — handle them for her.
Jason Sawatsky did it with pleasure. Sure, cooking Nicole’s eggs in class was part of the wooing process. But it would also provide the kind of training he needed to eventually run one of Niagara’s most notable brunch spots.
“He had my back in school,” Nicole said with a laugh. “He loved me.”
It would take more than breaking a few eggs for a girl he adored, however, before the two would open The Yellow Pear in St. Catharines, where Jason runs the kitchen and Nicole handles the hospitality side of the business.
For starters, they had to become partners in life, something fate seemed to be pointing them toward when the duo met up again after graduation in the kitchen at Inn on the Twenty. Still, they didn’t clue in to messages the universe — or poached eggs — seemed to be sending them until the late 2000’s when they reconnected on social media.
Nicole, a Burlington native, was making a name for herself in Toronto, working at an Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill. Jason, who hailed from Niagara, was perfecting his craft at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But it would ultimately be Niagara where the couple, who married in 2010, would carve out their careers together.
“It’s almost been half my life that I’ve lived here. I’m no longer from Burlington. I’m from Niagara, I wouldn’t want my business anywhere else.”
Still, the couple took the scenic route before opening their beacon of all things breakfast and brunch in a nondescript strip mall. They honed their skills as a husband-wife team at Thorold’s historic Keefer Mansion, and established the food program at Mahtay Café, one of downtown St. Catharines’ most popular places to gather for a coffee klatsch.
After that, Jason clocked time cooking in a retirement home, opting for income stability over career satisfaction. The experience took a toll, though, on his creativity behind the burner, and eventually his mental health.“I came home one night, and I was fed up opening bags of food and cooking like that,” he recalled.
At Nicole’s urging, the couple reassessed their careers. Jason began working part-time with Chef Adam Hynam-Smith, helping turn out fish tacos and tostadas from the tiny galley that was El Gastronomo Vagabundo, a gourmet food truck Hynam-Smith ran with his wife Tamara Jensen.
That experience gave Jason new direction, and in 2013, he and Nicole bought their own converted courier van, and launched the mobile version of The Yellow Pear.
They would drive the region’s backroads in their solar-powered food truck, buying local ingredients directly from farmers. They’d list those suppliers on a chalkboard menu alongside fresh wine country dishes they made to be eaten curbside at local supper markets and events.
The business, named after a variety of heirloom tomato, developed a following quickly. It was just as food trucks were gaining traction in Ontario and Niagara. But more than capitalizing on a trend, their roving kitchen helped the Sawatskys bring their food to people in a way that a bricks and mortar establishment couldn’t.
The Yellow Pear became a staple at corporate shindigs, during food and drink passport events at wineries, and even at weddings.
“It was ‘How can we go and feed as many people as possible?’ ” Nicole recalled. “Not all decisions were successful, but we learned from it.”
No matter where they took their meals on wheels, though, Jason still dreamed of a proper restaurant. Coming from a fine dining background, he had visions of a large, pristine place with no detail forgotten. Nicole, on the other hand, simply wanted a permanent kitchen to support The Yellow Pear’s burgeoning catering business.
They looked at vacant restaurants in downtown St. Catharines, which was on steady upswing. Port Dalhousie was a consideration, too, but some serious questions needed asking before anyone signed a lease.
“We’d gone through everything and it always came down to two questions,” Nicole said. “Can our business survive? And can you answer that question properly?”
In the end, the prospective properties had too much overhead and their plans for a restaurant were put in park until July 2015 when a former hot pot joint came up for grabs in a north end plaza.
Originally, they were going to use the small space to store supplies and prep for events they catered with their truck during the busy spring through fall schedule. The question was what to do come winter? They could pay rent for a spot that would largely go unused or they could open a restaurant that operated earlier in the day to enable some work-life balance and maintain their steady roster of 30 weddings a year.
Brunch was served officially at The Yellow Pear on Lake Street in October 2015 with the help of family — no one was more surprised by the meal choice than Nicole’s family. Jason was assigned egg duty once again. The couple thought they’d do 30 seatings a day, at most, but now find they can do ten times that in one weekend.
“When the Bleu Turtle (in west St. Catharines) closed down, we felt there was a void,” Jason explained. “ There were a lot of Asian spots, a lot of pizza spots and a lot of wing spots. We wanted to do breakfast like you couldn’t get at home.”
They’ve succeeded, largely by sticking to their original MO of serving what’s in season, sometimes changing the menu each day because of availability of ingredients. Their takes on Eggs Benedict, served with brisket, smoked salmon, peameal bacon or as a vegetarian version along with other upscale spins on the most important meal of the day have developed such a fanbase that The Yellow Pear won OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Award in 2018.
The couple has also achieved another coup together. Nicole doesn’t hate eggs anymore. In fact, you may catch her eating one once in a while.
Still, her focus running The Yellow Pear with Jason is ensuring others really love theirs.
“Whatever we make, we’re going to make it good and, hopefully, it works and people would see a side of us like what we’d serve to our family,”
Nicole said. “It’s nice to make food for people and have it be a special moment, not just in and out.”
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526 Lake St, St. Catharines, ON L2N 4H4
The Yellow Pear Kitchen
526 Lake St, St. Catharines, ON L2N 4H4