NOLA born and raised, Sonia Schaefer didn’t have Arkansas, let alone Little Rock, on her radar. In fact, the food industry came first, when she began working at an on-campus restaurant during her time at Louisiana State University.
“There’s a place called The Chimes on the LSU campus right next to the varsity theatre, and I started there,” she remembers, “I liked the energy and the food, so I stayed in it.”
She graduated college and headed to the French Culinary Institute in New York (now the International Culinary Institute), which was relatively new.
“I was interested in baking and sweets in college,” she says, “and I got to work with some great people at the Institute.” Specifically Schaefer was focused on pastries and chocolate – bread wasn’t really on her jam.
“I stayed in New York for about a year after the program,” she says, “I loved it there. I tried to stay as long as possible, because it’s good to be exposed to a city like that.”
She worked at some notable restaurants including Payard’s and Asia de Cuba.
When life offered her a new opportunity she followed it – eventually moving to Rock City with a college friend. She’s now called the Natural State home for 16 years.
When she first moved here, however, she didn’t quite know where she would land. “At the time the food industry here was largely lacking,” she remembers.
Luckily, Boulevard Bread Co. was in its early stages then, and Schaefer found herself intrigued.
“Scott McGehee and Roger Reynolds were at that time heavily involved here,” she explains, “They were making artisan breads and pastries, focusing on high quality products. I immediately wanted to work here.”
Reynolds essentially started the baking program which still persists at Boulevard largely to this day. “He really taught me to bake and mix to a high quality,” says Schaefer.
And, even though breads weren’t her initial focus, she learned to love it and the eatery. Even through those early shifts that were the backbone of the Boulevard breaking program. Schaefer might have an overnight shift, but she didn’t mind it too much – “There’s something rewarding about that push and pull.”
At one point, Schaefer moved to Houston for a bit, but when she came back McGehee asked her up to manage the bake-staff, a position which she filled naturally. She was also integral in opening ZAZA Fine Salad & Wood Pizza Co in the Heights, a few years back.
Her true love, however, will always be Boulevard.
She adores her team, even if she does see a flux of people come through the kitchen often. “People might be here for a year or two,” she says, “And they’ll start off without much experience but leave with a good working knowledge of how to get around a kitchen. I think there’s something to be said of that.”
Even through Boulevard’s expansion, Schaefer managed to find a reason to smile. Things got a little hectic, but it wasn’t anything she and her team couldn’t manage. “We tend to embrace chaos around here,” she laughs, “It definitely wasn’t the hardest thing we’ve done.”
These days, Schaefer has part ownership in the company, something she’s proud of, as she’s seen Little Rock’s food scene grow for the better.
“Everything we do here, we do from scratch,” she says, “And being a part of that movement locally is huge.” She only wishes that the limits could continue to be pushed creatively, not only on local menus, but in terms of patrons’ palates.
Today, if you were to head to Boulevard, you’d likely find Schaefer prepping in the kitchen.
“I’ve gotten back into the kitchen here,” she says. “I think there’s this romanticized view of the culinary world, and surely some days you get to be creative and I’m always excited about coming in, but it is a lot of hard work.”
That could be one of the many reasons why women might be initially unsure about getting into the food industry. Plus, as she says, “Everybody is always looking for that next male chef star. I’ve been around long enough to know that working hard and doing a good job is all you can do.”
When not working, Schaefer likes to hang out at home with her family and friends. She’s a fan of yoga and enjoys exercise. If you happen to catch her eating out she’s likely frequenting Maddie’s Place, Taqueria Carina, Mr. Chen’s or Table 28.
“I love what I do,” she says, “It’ s definitely not easy, it takes a certain diligence everyday, but it’s worth it.”