Women of The Wedding Industry Wednesday, Stephanie Wiitala of S2S (And everything)
Over the past two years as I have shifted gears in my career completely, and started this little endeavor The Revel Rose, I have become incredibly grateful for the community of women I have the opportunity to learn from, be mentored by, and work with when the stars align. Clearly that was the motivation behind starting this weekly blog series.
But also, I am deeply moved, touched, and kicked right in the center of my feelings gut when I come across someone who feels like, I'll just say it, an industry mama. Someone who notices you early on and introduces themselves to you with a smile and a handshake. Someone who has a few words of encouragement, a bit of advice, or some bit of trusted insight they freely and happily give. Someone who remembers your name, invites you in, and asks you how things are, where you're at. How you're doing. How are things coming along. What is it you dream of.
Someone who feels like a perfect ray of sunshine, right when you need it.
It's not that this particular sunbeam has any more hours in the day than anyone else. It's not as if she's spread less thin, and doesn't have other bodies to warm. It's not as if she doesn't have her own business, partner, family, history, struggles or what-have-yous. But for a temporary time, she has the ability to make you feel like what you feel matters. Like what you're saying is important. And like whatever you are experiencing could be trying to teach you something about the value of hard work and patience, and the value in choosing gratitude every single morning when you wake up.
OBVS WE ARE TALKING ABOUT SUNSHINE QUEEN HER'SELF...
It's hard to describe someone like Stephanie, or what she does in one sentence. I'm not going to attempt it and I gave her the difficult task of trying to. But I met Stephanie, our last Catering Qween featured in January's Women of the Wedding Industry while catering an event with Epicure Catering at Historic Barns Park in Traverse City where Stephanie serves as venue manager for events and weddings.
Stephanie had this PRESENCE. An aura if you will. I truly have never seen someone in charge of managing a wedding look so happy in the few precious and hellacious hours before that wedding is about to start.
But she was smiling. SMILING people. Singing a little song to herself. Looking important but approachable. Busy but present. Focused but friendly, like if 200 people weren't about to walk through the door at any moment and start doing all the extra things that wedding guests do (sorry not sorry, y'all are some work), she'd be down for a cup of tea and a long chat about art or something.
Two years later, Stephanie showed up to a little cottage on Higgins Lake the day before the 4th of July, and prepared a meal for one of my very first couples and 18 of their loved ones. I knew I could trust her completely with their vision, and that day was one of my favorites of my whole season. An intentional meal, a long and languid afternoon without an agenda, and an incredibly happy team working along side me to pull it off.
Our summer wedding on Higgins Lake, catered by Stephanie and Jonathan of S2S. Photo by Amy Pezzicara.
Stephanie is a kindred spirit to me.
When I feel like certain parts of my personality; like being sensitive, or overly optimistic, or super trusting, or feeling pulled by different passions, or treasuring my family time above all else is going to get the best of my business, or somehow stifle my ability to succeed, I find that I can look to her as an example of how to balance the softer sides of yourself with the harder sides of owning a business.
The secret to Stephanie's joy is something that has intrigued me ever since I met her, so yeah.
That's the focus of this interview.
I don't edit my interviewee's words. And I don't shorten them for the average blog attention span. And I especially don't do it when someone is such a naturally gifted writer.
So I hope you can grab a cup of something warm, and enjoy this moment with The Sunshine Queen this winter week.
Stephanie serving wedding guests at a lakeside dinner on Higgins Lake. Photo by Amy Pezzicara.
So lady, where are you from?
I am from a hardworking single parent mom who did an above and beyond amazing job raising me and my sister Jen, while she also worked full time and went to college at night. She is my first mentor and inspiration in my life, where I learned that hard work pays off and to be the best you can be everyday no matter what is going on around you.
I am also a born and raised Traverse City, MI kid. I’m a girl who grew up loving the outdoors and most of all the beaches and acres of woods completely assessable from my own back yard. I am a young lady who grew up fast working for some amazing small business owners.
I am a woman who comes from countless experiences that have made me who I am at this very moment. I have always been proud of the community that I grew up in. I have been here in Northern Michigan my entire life and I can’t imagine going anywhere else.
Is your last name Finnish or something?
You nailed it Kendall! Thank you for recognizing that my last name Wiitala is Finnish. I am extremely proud to of it. My grandpa, Don Wiitala is a very important man in my life. My grandpa owned and operated a local radio station for over 40 years in Traverse City. He is the next person after my mom who truly inspired me to be the woman I am today. He is the first business owner I got to know and learn from.
With his business he supported his family, and he also supported his community. I think it is correct to say he is a local TC legend in his own right, though he is super humble about it all. He is exactly who I wanted to be when I grew up.
Your nickname is Sunshine Queen. You literally feel like a ray of sunshine when I’m in your presence. Who gave you that nickname, and where do you find your wellspring of joy?
Sunshine Queen comes from my love, Jonathan Dayton. We have thousands of love notes on yellow post-its we have left for one another over the years- Early on with those notes, Jonathan started calling me the Sunshine Queen and it seemed to fit perfectly.
My wellspring of joy is an original and bountiful source of thankfulness. Every day I do my best to recognize how much I am thankful for my three beautiful and intelligent kids, our strong health and ability to eat the best food right from where we live,. I am thankful for Jonathan and all we share, my loving family and friends, our successful businesses, our loyal customers, and to live peacefully and comfortably in a community I love.
You do, everything. But for people who don’t know you, give them a little feel for what your average week looks like.
Kendall, how am I supposed to keep this answer from turning into a chapter book.
As a mom my week starts with my babies. All three kids, Lauren, Riley and Esmé are at the top of my priorities making sure they get to school on time, eat properly, feel love and support, do their homework, get outside, and most of all continue to learn and grow to be independent successful grown-ups.
My first business Sunrise 2 Sunset Events is the contract holder for the Cathedral Barn at Historic Barns Park and this is a very beloved old barn renovation venue I represent for The Recreational Authority of the City of TC and Garfield Township. The Barn takes a high priority in my week to make sure I capture all the sales, and supply the best service to all the groups who reserve it.
S2S Sugar 2 Salt Restaurant, located in the Historic Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Photo by Jacqueline Southby
S2S Sugar 2 Salt Restaurant and Catering also holds major responsibilities in my week- from daily restaurant management duties I share with Jonathan to keeping up with catering requests, daily accounting entries, managing employees, baking pastries and checking in with our patrons and catering clients, this fills up just about the entire remainder of my work week.
Yes, I do all of the above and wear these multiple hats, and even more than what is mentioned here, every week of my life. (My laugh out loud feels a little psychotic) I don’t have the answer for how I do it all.
Every week I do ALL of this and I don’t have an answer for “How do you do it all?” I just figure it out and get it done.
Why Traverse City? What do people get from TC that they can’t get anywhere else?
I think in TC you get the best of the world, with a measure of creative diversity that is hard to find anywhere else. What I mean by this statement is that we have 4 distinct and beautiful seasons. From Winter to Spring, Summer and Fall we have a backdrop for weather and activities for everyone to enjoy. We have an amazing collection of artists in the area from culinary to canvas. Artisans who create cheeses and wine, and creatives who repurpose old furniture and gardeners who are florists too. In TC you get the best of the best with hard working residents who are passionate about what they do and dedicated to offering the best in service and products to all visitors and also to the people who live here too.
You dated the chef. OMG so many of us have done that sis but now you’re MARRIED to him. What was it like meeting Jonathan?
He was hilarious the first time I met him. We met during my interview for a culinary internship and he was at the table along with another chef and the owner of the business. I really wanted to be hired for this job and thought I had done well with the interview questions they threw out at me. I was asked to leave the room for a few minutes while they discussed. I thought that was strange as most places will thank you for coming and tell you they will call you back if you are hired.
When I was asked to come back and be seated at the table, I was sure they would tell me I was hired. Jonathan looked me straight in the eye with a very believable seriousness and said “I am sorry, but we will not be able to hire you.” Can you imagine the disappointed look on my face? I was speechless. I remember thinking “who is this guy?” The next thing he said was “Happy April Fools Day Stephanie, actually we would love to hire you!” With a sigh of relief and a good laugh I was now looking forward to getting to know this funny guy. I still can’t believe he did that!
You also work with Jonathan now too, tell us all what it’s actually like to work with your partner.
It’s wonderful and it can be tough to work together. It’s amazing to share our successes and it’s hard to figure out how to get through a day when our communication isn’t working out. We see each other at our best, and our worst, and then we go home and try not to talk about it too much.
Owning a business together as a couple has been amazing with Jonathan because we both love what we do and we are constantly inspiring and pushing one another to grow and be the best at whatever we are doing for the business and our family too. Challenges do arise and it’s great that we have different approaches to overcoming them. We have learned to trust each other and to be respectful to one another even when we disagree. I am thankful to work alongside him. I am proud of what we are able to accomplish together.
I was obsessed with the moment at our intimate Higgins Lake wedding this past July when you asked me if you could introduce yourself to the guests and tell them about their meal. You proceeded to talk about the importance of the wedding meal, and I was crying in the corner. It was so special. Can you share some of that message here?
When I saw everyone gathered together at the dinner table on that wedding day, I knew that every guest seated at the table was really important to the bridal couple. The bride and groom told us when we were hired that they wanted a special dinner that would stand out during their celebration. Knowing these expectations in advance helped me with the message I shared right before we served dinner.
In my presentation I hoped to give the group a better understanding of how specially prepared this dinner was, and how it included the best of the seasonal ingredients and locally created artisan products in Northern Michigan. Jonathan and I wanted the dinner to not only be deliciously memorable, we wanted it to complement and enhance the wedding day experience, making it exceed everyone’s expectations. It was fun for me to explain the dinner before it was served, and see all the guests smiles as they nodded their heads in agreement with what I was sharing. It a great way to build their excitement, anticipation and appetite before the first course is delivered.
I took my 90 year old Aunt Millie to breakfast at S2S and she was disappointed you didn’t have a French Dip on the menu, but I convinced her to get the breakfast plate and she said it was the best bacon she’s ever had. Where’s it from?
We work with a local farmer Randy Rice who owns Rice Centennial Farms, and he is a great guy. The pork belly comes in without anything done to it yet and then Jonathan and Josh go to work with it in the kitchen. The development of flavors comes with time and attention to the process of making bacon and the guys are awesome with it. After it has been smoked in our smoker behind the restaurant, they thick slice it so that it almost resembles bacon steak. We have done comparisons to other thick cut bacon, and ours makes the other stuff look quite inadequate. We receive many compliments for how we make our bacon at S2S, and it's a great example of how we work with ingredients from our community, with a “from scratch” cooking approach.
You are a natural in the hospitality industry. Where did you hone your service industry skills and how did you know it was time to go on your own?
It is in my genes. I have been honing these skills since I was a little girl. I learned from my Grandma Joanie who always set the table for dinner no matter what the occasion or meal. My mom who worked hard for everything she had. She also made me get my first job at 14 at the local ice cream store too. I have literally been working in service since.
I had my first business at 23 years old called Happy Home Cleaning which I ran successfully for almost 8 years before starting culinary school. I found out early on being my own boss was a good fit for me in the service industry and I knew after I honed my skills in culinary school and working in a professional kitchen long enough, I would go back to having my own business again someday.
I am built for the service industry and I am lucky to understand this about myself so that I can apply my high level of energy and love and care to helping others. I will go and go and go if I have to. I have always worked like an owner. The decision to go out and start a business felt risky, and also felt completely right. Before starting an events management business and restaurant I had the ability to work in those roles for quite a few years employed by another local business. When the time to came to move forward and grow, I could easily envision my success and my shared success with Jonathan, so we went for it.
You wear heels and short saucy skirts and look like a minx on event day. Tell me how this is humanly possible.
Now I am blushing. Is this really how I look? I don’t know how to answer this question. I come from a family who has always dressed for success. A well-coordinated outfit with the right shoes not only has to match the occasion, it also has to function the entire 18-20 hour day. Every guest dresses in their best for weddings and special events and I always want to make sure I match the occasion.
Your event company is called Sunrise 2 Sunset Events. Most people don’t actually understand how long a wedding day is for planners and event coordinators. Walk us through an average 18-20 hour workday at a wedding.
I have actually wrote out a minute by minute account of my day as a wedding and event coordinator and it about 6 typed pages long. To sum it all up my day starts at 4:00am with about an hour of coffee, writing in my journal or reading a book, “me time.”. After that I feel ready to tackle the day.
From start to finish the wedding day commands my undivided attention. It includes last minute problem solving, management of employees, perceiving needs from the bride and groom and guests, long before they even know what they need. Above all it requires an intense amount of love and dedication to helping the day be perfect. I will break out into a run just to be more efficient in getting the tasks completed for the day. My fitbit tells me I go about 70,000 + steps on a wedding weekend, which equates to over thirty miles. It’s my own version of a marathon.
Your a mom to three kids! I can’t even remember to feed and walk my dog most mornings. What about being a business owner makes you a better mom, and what about being a mom makes you a better business owner?
I am a mother of my children and a mother of our businesses too. I deeply love my children, and I am passionate about giving my best to my clients and employees at our businesses. Being a mom and being a business owner makes me a woman who has developed a lot of ways to show my love and nurture these young lives and the business as they grow. It has also taught me that daily I don’t know as much as I think I do. I still haven’t seen it all. The business and my kids are always teaching me something new every day. It is up to me to pay attention and be open to growing with them.
Has anyone ever questioned your ability to succeed in this industry because you balance motherhood as well?
I cannot think of an instance where someone has specifically questioned my ability to succeed in this industry because I am a mom, except for maybe the times I have questioned myself. I am always doing my best to prioritize my kids first when it comes to attending to all my daily responsibilities. I have learned that by choosing my family first it is always the right choice.
My kids are pretty patient with me during the times that the balance feels off and swayed more towards work, it happens even when I try hard not to let it. I have always kept them near me in my work too. From carrying my babies in backpacks on the job, to putting them to work alongside me. Since my first born I have always taken my kids to work with me whenever possible. It feels successful because I get to keep what I love the most near me while I do what I love with my job. The balance exists when I see their smiles and they are also not afraid to tell me when it is time to hurry up and finish the job so we can go home.
I catered a wedding this summer that you were attending as a guest, what’s your favorite part of weddings as a guest?
Since I became a wedding planner I have not attended many weddings as an actual guest- though I have attended over 300 weddings in the last 7 years. I have to admit being a guest at an event is weird for me. I have to keep reminding myself to not think about all the details happening around me and how they are getting it done. If I can get myself to disconnect from wondering and judging all the pieces of the puzzle that makes up the day and just appreciate the opportunity to be an actual guest, I have found it is a wonderful thing to attend a wedding I don’t have to coordinate.
My favorite part is getting to dress up and be able to sip cocktails, and connect with people I know and make new friends too. Often you will find Jonathan and I talking to the wait staff and kitchen crew because we know most of them working no matter where the event and who is running the show.
Favorite family recipe?
Hands down my Grandma Rose’s rice pilaf. Grandma was 100% Armenian and very proud of her family and heritage. She loved us grandkids and when we were in her presence we received her undivided attention. When I was younger and she would come to visit us in Traverse City during the summer (she lived downstate in Warren) we would always plan an alfresco dinner in the back yard. My mom would get the charcoal grill going for shish kabobs, and grandma would help make the rice pilaf to complement. I have a hand written recipe card from her for the family’s rice pilaf that I will always treasure. My kids love grandma’s rice pilaf too, and it always makes us think of her now that she has passed away. She left a legacy of love and eating good food she will always be remembered by.
How does someone as busy as you unwind, truly unwind during the busy season and off season?
In the busy season its usually full on summertime. If the weather is good you will find me soaking up the sun on the beach at Good Harbor near my house, with my kids, a good book, and an ice cold IPA while listening to downtempo grooves coming from my Bose Bluetooth speaker. My phone will be disconnected from all notifications; I won’t answer it. I sleep hard in the shorter periods of time I get for rest. I unwind by getting up super early and writing down my thoughts, going through the list of what I am thankful for and taking a full hour before the sun rises to enjoy my coffee and the quietest parts of the day when the rest of my family is still asleep.
In the off season I find myself in the hot room for yoga and its where I see myself again for the first time in months. Looking into the mirror at the yoga studio I can come to terms with where I have been and where I am going. I can unwind all the knots I have created in my muscles from moving furniture at the venue and hefting catering equipment for events. I can reflect on what made me stronger and what felt like weakness. In the off season I unwind by appreciating the slower pace while its happening. I watch more Netflix, go on more hikes in the woods and read through books much more quickly.
I have a nasty question to ask you. Between being a restauranteur, caterer, event planner, and venue manager, which position do you see yourself in the longest?
The choice to become a chef was one of the most pivotal moments of my entire life. I can still remember the exact moment that I made that decision to go to culinary school at 30 years old. I felt excited and nervous, and at the same time strong and independent. It was the type of defining moment where I realized that the only person who was going to help me start the path to achieve my biggest dreams was myself. I chose my career path to being a chef and eventually a restauranteur and have always known it was the best decision I ever made.
All of the positions I have held since that moment have stemmed from that most important choice, and they have been a part of what has strengthened my repertoire of experience and helped me understand multiple aspects of the food and beverage and events industry. My native tongue is chef talk, and all the other positions are like other languages I am able to speak fluently too. I love everything I get to do and a chef, venue manager and event planner, but most of all I love working with, and helping people have the most amazing experiences and creating the best memories.
I am not sure I can project out far enough to see myself being in one or the other the longest. What I can imagine is that I will continue to develop my experience in all of these practices. The one I choose to do the longest will depend on following my heart on this life’s journey, and the best part I already know is it will be my choice.
Do you like your cooking or your baking best?
Baking 100% is what I LOVE the most because it is time for me. What I mean by that is whenever I put my apron on with a plan to bake I know I am going to be at it for some time and it will require my undivided attention if I want the products to come out successfully. Baking to me requires my undivided attention, otherwise I find I am burning the cookies in the oven, the butter gets too warm while it waits to be incorporated into the flour mix for scones, or the bread over proofs and becomes a waste. All that being said I love my baking because it turns into total “me time”. I like to put my earbuds in with my favorite music, organize my ingredients and use my hands to create while leaving the rest of the world behind for a short bit.
If you lived across the pond, would you consider being on The Great British Baking Show?
Oh my kids would love it if I was on a cooking show. They have been asking me for years to apply to the show on Food Network “Chopped” and I have sent an application to their casting calls once or twice, though I am not disappointed they haven’t called.
I would love the challenge of being a part of a show like that as I am a very competitive person. I would be in it to win it, and would be visualizing myself as the winner the moment I was cast! I also think experiencing being a on a TV show would be great fun because of the camaraderie and friendships that develops when you work alongside other people who are pushing towards the same goals. It’s motivating to me when I can spend time with other people who have a similar drive. I think I would be the contestant that is friendly, and yet fierce. My game face when I am focused in the kitchen is scary.
There you have it. Come see Steph for brunch at S2S this winter Wednesday - Friday 8 AM - 1 PM and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 AM - 2 PM. My fav is the risotto or the seasonal breakfast plate!