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This North York food court is a training ground for newcomers looking to break into hospitality

A North York food court has transformed into a training ground for new Canadians looking to to break into the hospitality industry.

Offering a variety of cuisine at five different kiosks about a block from the North York Centre, Food Hall TO officially opened on April 5. It’s also offering opportunity, thanks to the city of Toronto and Feed Scarborough, a non-profit that runs food programs in the east end.

“This is a food court in many ways, but at the same time it’s a classroom,” said Tracey Fowler, the lead mentor for Food Hall TO.

Fowler, who has a long career in food service in southern Ontario, and taught hospitality at Centennial College for 12 years before guiding “student entrepreneurs” at Food Hall TO, says the program offers a true education in a working kitchen.

The kiosks are run by clients and volunteers of Feed Scarborough who have recently come to Canada, and want to learn how to run their own food business. Feed Scarborough leases the space from the city, and provides mentors who train vendors on everything from how to hold a knife properly to managing costs and ordering supplies.

A shop on a city street has a NOW OPEN sign on its window. The name of the shop is Food Hall TO. A woman is passing on the street.
Food Hall TO is a working restaurant, but it’s also a classroom for five newcomers to Canada. The food court, run in partnership by Feed Scarborough and the city of Toronto, had its grand opening on April 4. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

“We are now mentoring these entrepreneurs for them to further their career in the hospitality industry, either by going off and maybe starting their own [business], helping them set it up or following through and finding some jobs in the industry,” she said in an interview. 

“Because right now, since COVID, things have been slower and there is a need for these roles and I feel that they will have a job in no time.”

New chance for refugees, newcomers

Among the first five vendors to come through the program are an Indian couple working toward a vegan brand of food trucks and catering, a refugee from Bangladesh who’d never cooked before applying to the food hall and a Congalese refugee making Jerk Caribbean barbecue who says he’s found a new sense of community cooking for locals and working with fellow newcomers.

Sylvester Kamau, who fled persecution in Kenya to come to Canada last year, says he hopes the education and connections he makes through the program will allow him to start his own business in a new country.

“The opportunity came along and I had to grab it,” said Kamau, who runs a momo and bau kiosk. Kamau was taught how to make the Vietnamese dishes by experienced professionals like Fowler, and says he wants to infuse Kenyan and Vietnamese cuisine in his own venture.

The five current vendors will run their kiosks for a six-month term. At the end, they have the option to stay in the “classroom” for another six months, or work with mentors to get into the food service business themselves.

A Black man in a restaurant uniform, apron and ball cap stands by industrial kitchen equipment in a restaurant. He is behind the counter, facing sideways, staring at a steamer.
Sylvester Kamau, waits for a batch of momos to steam at his kiosk. Kamau came to Canada from Kenya, and says he’d like to open his own food business that mixes Kenyan cuisine with momos and bau. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

Food Hall TO replaces failed program

The program is a relaunch of a failed city-led project originally intended to provide aspiring restaurateurs financial and professional assistance to start their own food business.

Under that original program, Flip Kitchens, vendors paid rent for their space in return for mentorship from the non-profit CaterToronto. But vendors said they never got that support and that their businesses failed as a result.

The program shut down, and Feed Scarborough stepped up with a slightly tweaked program, catered to new Canadians. Feed Scarborough now pays a reduced rent to the city and vendors pay nothing, instead receiving a stipend during their enrolment. Revenue from the food sales goes back into the program.

Coun. Lily Cheng, who represents the Willowdale neighbourhood where the non-profit is located, had a chance to visit the rejuvenated space under Food Hall TO and says she’s thrilled by the transformation. 

“The vendors who were in place [before], did not have the coaching and mentoring that was promised,” she said. “So they had to kind of, you know, go it alone, which was incredibly hard.” 

As vendors complained, Cheng says, the city worked to provide resources and connections, and even significantly reduced the rent they were paying, but that couldn’t sustain the program.

Suman Roy - Feed Scarborough
Feed Scarborough founder Suman Roy, pictured here in March 2023, says he wants Food Hall TO to help newcomers realize their ‘Canadian dream.’ (CBC)

Feed Scarborough founder Suman Roy, who has been in hospitality since he came to Canada from India over two decades ago, says he knows how hard the adjustment to a new country can be. As more immigrants struggle to find their footing in Toronto, he says he hopes Food Hall TO will give newcomers a chance to launch their own businesses. 

“We’re going to really give them an opportunity to have their Canadian dream,” Roy said.

“And we will of course help them through that journey.”

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