As Toronto gears up for the much-anticipated semi-annual ByBlacks Restaurant Week happening November 20-26, 2023, the city’s culinary landscape is set to showcase its diversity and inclusivity.
We spoke to five enthusiastic and resilient restaurant owners, each bringing their unique flavours and stories to the forefront of this exciting event.
"What keeps us inspired is always keeping the customers happy and hearing them talk about how appreciative they are to have us here." - Gennetho Gordon
Black-owned and operated by Gennetho Gordon, Cecil Kerr and George Crooks; Kingston 12 Patty Shop & Caribbean Dishes restaurant can be found in Toronto’s iconic Eglinton West neighbourhood of Little Jamaica, serving up grab-and-go Jamaican patties, soups and staple dishes like oxtail and curry goat.
Tianna Goguen: Anyone who enjoys Jamaican food can attest to their love for patties-- tell me a little bit about how you started your business, what inspired you?
Gennetho Gordon: My partners and I saw the need for an authentic patty place in Little Jamaica, and we were excited to bring a little piece of home to Toronto. What keeps us inspired is always keeping the customers happy and hearing them talk about how appreciative they are to have us here.
TG: As you are a newer business this will be your first time participating in ByBlacks Restaurant Week, how did you learn about the event, and what drove you to participate?
GG: It was recommended to us by the Black Business and Professional Association, and it’s a great opportunity to market ourselves and have other people get to know the restaurant and bring awareness to our shop. It allows us to showcase that Black businesses are around and are still trying to make and offer a change in the community. The biggest challenge any businesses face is the lack of support; I think this initiative will aid in boosting support for Black businesses.
TG: Any advice for new or up-and-coming Black-owned restaurants in Toronto?
GG: I would say stay true to your passion, there are going to come challenges but don’t be afraid to ask for help – I would also recommend considering being a part of the next ByBlacks Restaurant Week, I think it’s a great way to get people to know about your business and to offer deals and specials to your existing customers to help drive more sales.
"If we want to be an amazing city with great eats, support local and Black-owned. Toronto wouldn't be the food destination it is without the labour of Black and Brown bodies. We love what we do and we hope you do too." - Victor Ugwueke
Beginning its journey as a pop-up serving small menus that featured West African, but mainly Nigerian fare, owner and chef Victor Ugwueke quickly realized after regularly selling out his pop-up experiences that he needed to expand. From there, Afrobeat Kitchen became a staple in Toronto’s vibrant Parkdale neighbourhood, on Queen Street West.
TG: You have managed to introduce so many Torontonians to Nigerian food and West African flavours in general – how did you get here, what inspired you to bring Afrobeat Kitchen to life?
Victor Ugwueke: I actually owned my own small restaurant in Lagos [Nigeria] after I finished college. My mom owned one so we grew up in her kitchen and I had the idea to open another location in a more central area. When I opened my location, my mom would wake up extra early, before the crack of dawn, to go to the local markets with me. Then, she went to her restaurant, prepared food for the day with her staff and made another trip from the mainland to the Island to cook the food for my customers. Eventually, I asked her to start teaching me to cook instead to save her these journeys.
Initially, my dream was to start a business as a way to save money so I could go abroad. I lived in Asia and Europe before moving to Toronto but always had a dream that I would open my own place again and introduce Nigerian food to others. I think it’s a cuisine that is underrepresented and I wanted to make it more accessible for people to try.
TG: ByBlacks Restaurant Week will be bringing out Toronto’s foodies to indulge in both foods they have grown up loving and new ones they’ve never tried – what is something you wish customers knew about the business behind being a restaurateur?
VU: Value our labour and enjoy yourself, tip as generously as you can. Be patient as we might be short-staffed. We appreciate the money you are spending, we'll take care of you. If we want to be an amazing city with great eats, support local and Black-owned. Toronto wouldn't be the food destination it is without the labour of Black and Brown bodies. We love what we do and we hope you do too.
"It’s about raising each other up and sharing experiences – we believe in this initiative where all Black-owned businesses can come together and help lift each other up." - Keith Ebanks
Described as a dream turned into a reality, bringing the authentic tastes of the Caribbean to its customers each and every day. The family-operated restaurant owned by Keith Ebanks, has always aimed to offer delicious Jamaican cuisine in an upscale and inviting atmosphere located minutes south of Avenue and Wilson.
TG: Congratulations as I know Scotthill is approaching its seventh year in business, can you tell me a little bit about how you started?
Keith Ebanks: After working at the same job for over 30 years and facing a possible change in the company, I thought about the alternatives for me. Growing up in Jamaica, I’d always had a dream to one day open a takeout business – this has always been a passion of mine. The inspiration for cooking definitely came from my youth. Watching my parents cook great food and seeing our friends and neighbours enjoy it brought me joy and kept me passionate about food. With that possible job change, I felt if I didn’t try to fulfill this passion now, I never would. It just so happens that instead of a takeout business, an opportunity to open a restaurant presented itself to me, and I took the plunge. I had no idea of the challenges to come, but with faith and perseverance, Scotthill keeps on going.
TG: You have been a recurring participant in ByBlacks Restaurant Week, what has been your experience?
KE: Scotthill has participated in ByBlacks Restaurant Week for quite a few years, and it has been great. Through the ByBlacks initiative, we gain access to new customers who have never heard of our restaurant before. It provides great exposure and through that, we’ve had the opportunity to meet up with other Black restaurant owners and network with other Black-owned businesses. It’s about raising each other up and sharing experiences – we believe in this initiative where all Black-owned businesses can come together and help lift each other up. It’s something that the community needs. We’ve also had the opportunity to showcase our restaurant on Global News, appear on The Dr. Vibez show, and have Brandon Gonez stop by to try our food.
"Our parents always had a big pot of something yummy on the stove. We started cooking for friends and family, and then word got out about our food." - Nicole Charles
After years of perfecting their deep passion for cooking dishes for friends and family, SugarKane owners and sisters, Nicole Charles, Renée Charles and Donna Charles, knew it was time to bring their passion and expertise to Torontonians. Initially starting out as solely a catering business, SugarKane is now both — a full-service restaurant and catering service-- nestled on the Danforth and typically teeming with foodies enjoying the live music and events.
TG: It’s great to see three women coming together to run a successful business, and knowing you’re all sisters is even better! What gave you the inspiration to bring your business to life?
Nicole Charles: Renée, Donna and I are definitely inspired by our parents. Our house was always the house that all family and friends came to for a good meal. Our parents always had a big pot of something yummy on the stove. We started cooking for friends and family, and then word got out about our food.
TG: SugarKane has been part of past ByBlacks Restaurant Weeks, how were they?
NC: Yes, we've been participating with ByBlacks Restaurant Week from the beginning! It is such an amazing event that highlights restaurants and encourages people to get out and try something new from a Black-owned restaurant.
The event is also so important to Black restaurants because it showcases restaurants that may not be seen in "mainstream" media. Not all Black-owned restaurants have an opportunity to be promoted, and this initiative gives you that opportunity, to let people in our community know that we're here! We've had so many customers who have come in and mentioned that they found us through ByBlacks Restaurant Week!
The name says it all – ByBlacks Restaurant Week celebrates Black-owned businesses and showcases diverse cuisines. People of all ethnicities know that they are indeed supporting a Black-owned business, and by doing so we know that it is intentional, and we welcome that with open arms!
"People come in, and it allows consumers to try something different each time and at a reasonable price. Highlighting local Black-owned businesses brings exposure, which we all need!" - Naza Hasebenebi
Born in the Northeast African country of Eritrea, Naza Hasebenebi is the brilliant mind behind the vegan company Chic Peas Veg, serving Torontonians plant-based meals inspired by Eritrea and Ethiopia, using ingredients from around the world. Based on Yonge Street in North York, Chic Peas Veg offers customers a dynamic experience, bringing them flavours in more than one way with its catering, meal plans, pop-up brunches and public, private and corporate cooking classes.
TG: Chic Peas Veg has been a participant in the ByBlacks Restaurant Week in the past, what has been your experience?
Naza Hasebenebi: It's actually been a great opportunity, the kind of exposure that you get for that period of time is what I love about this particular project. People come in, and it allows consumers to try something different each time and at a reasonable price. Highlighting local Black-owned businesses brings exposure, which we all need!
TG: How important would you say ByBlacks’ role is in amplifying the different types of food within Toronto’s Black Community?
NH: Very important, there's the exposure of now getting to learn about this whole other cuisine that you didn't know anything about, and now have the ability to try. With African food, there's such a spectrum from other parts of the continent. ByBlacks Restaurant Week makes it easier for customers to venture out because with a prix fixe you're not paying the same price point as you would if you had everything separate. At the same time, both the consumer and the business win, because people get to enjoy this new cuisine so much that they return, but then they also share it and bring in other people and the business becomes reciprocal.