The story behind Cochrane’s Twisted Basil

When you’re running a business, rapid growth isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

In 2012, Leslie Swan, the woman behind Cochrane’s Twisted Basil, was running a company with more than 30 employees and multiple divisions, including organic food delivery, a café and small market, catering, and prepared meal production. Swan had originally started the company with her three sisters but as they moved away from the business, she knew that she couldn’t – and didn’t want to – run such a large operation on her own. So she scaled back.

Swan and her sisters started Twisted Basil in 2006, spurred on by a mutual passion for healthy, organically sourced food. The four women had always been close and had previously worked together as a singing group, so after years of bonding together over good meals before and after performances, a food-based business seemed like a natural fit.

Twisted Basil grew quickly, but life happens, and with Swan the only one actually living in Cochrane (one sister is now in Australia, which makes for a particularly difficult commute), she eventually found herself to be the last sister standing. Wanting to hold onto the business in more manageable form, she shut down most of Twisted Basil’s operations and focused solely on catering.

“My first client was Coldplay and I catered their whole Western tour,” Swan says. “They had such specific requirements, they were very allergy sensitive and that fit with our whole focus as a company. We do organic, gluten-free, naturally healthy, so a group like that with such stringent guidelines about what they wanted made it a great fit.”

That naturally healthy philosophy is a cornerstone of Twisted Basil’s business. Swan’s mandate is to provide her clients with nutritious food that is free of additives and is sourced from local farmers whenever possible. Much of Twisted Basil’s menu is also gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, or vegetarian, but not in a way that screams “specialty meals.”

Twisted Basil attracts many of its (often corporate) clients on the promise that they’ll be able to accommodate specific diets and food allergies without having to compromise on taste, or single out those who need an “alternative” meal.

“We cater to all different kinds of clients, but because we do have such an extensive menu that deals with allergies, it’s an easy fit because they never have to worry about having special entrées for special needs,” Swan says. “All of our menu incorporates all of those elements which makes us a good fit for a variety of clientele.”

Luckily, these days you don’t need to be attending a corporate lunch or other catered event to have a taste of Twisted Basil’s wares. After that initial scaling back, Swan has slowly started expanding the company again. A year ago, a commercial kitchen in Cochrane became available that happened to be attached to a perfect space for a new café and a small food market. Even though she didn’t plan to open another retail store, Swan couldn’t resist turning the building into a cosy spot for customers to grab a bite or do a little bit of organic shopping.

“I just put it together and it’s quite an eclectic little homey café,” Swan says. “It’s kind of a love project that came together. We highlight our farmers that we source our local ingredients from — it’s really a farm fresh café. That’s the direction we’re going with it.”

There’s a third way to try out Twisted Basil’s food, and that’s through the company’s wholesale products, which are available at Amaranth stores, Market 17, and Spud and Farm Box (the latter of which delivers to addresses in Banff, Canmore, and Cochrane) home delivery services. Swan’s wholesale products include a selection of dips, salads, and desserts, as well as savoury entrees like Fenugreek Chicken Curry, Greek Bison Stew, and Jerk Chicken Skewers with Raisin Spiced Rice, all of which are gluten-free and free of hormones and antibiotics.

And as much as Swan is excited to see Twisted Basil grow (she thinks her next move will be to get the prepared meals into a year-round farmers’ market in Calgary), she also knows that she has to make the company work with her life, and doesn’t want to get into another situation like she was in when she decided to scale back. But for now she seems to have found the right balance, and is happy to be bringing the kind of food she believes in to as many people as her company can reasonably handle.

“Because catering and wholesale is the main component of our business, I have to proceed fairly carefully,” Swan says. “Reopening the store and the café was a big deal for me, but it was absolutely the right move and I’ve really been enjoying working with my support staff. We’ve got a great team, so I’m not as lonely as I first was working without my sisters.”

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