Without strong English language skills, Canadian work experience, and an understanding of Canadian workplace culture, newcomers may have difficulty finding work in Canada. Whether as an employee or an entrepreneur, catering is one way to get a foot in the door.
The catering industry could be a good choice for newcomers interested in entrepreneurship. It’s an option for those with a background in cooking and preparing food for their families, even if they’ve never cooked professionally. It’s by sharing food from their countries of origin that newcomers can both remind themselves of home and begin to feel at home in Canada. On the other hand, possible menu offerings are endless, limited only by imagination and time. If you can identify a niche in your local food scene, specialize in it, and fill an existing demand, customers are more likely to gravitate to you when cravings hit.
Catering businesses can start on a small scale and budget, if necessary. There is flexibility in terms of the type of food produced, production locations, and hours committed to the business, which make it easier to establish a viable business plan. Working from home is particularly attractive to parents as a way to balance work with family obligations. As described in The Mystery of the Baklava Man (The Tyee, April 5/18), it’s a way to earn money and keep busy when other jobs are hard to come by.
Common difficulties centre on planning and organization. Food has to be prepared and delivered on time, at the risk of unhappy clients, and employees should be dependable to keep on schedule. The ability to manage people—to create an environment where they’re motivated to work hard, but cared for such that they want to stay long-term—is a catalyst for any up-and-coming venture.
For more details on entrepreneurship for newcomers, see
- Our post, Entrepreneurship – starting a business in Canada;
- The Government of Canada’s Restaurant and catering start-up checklist; and
- FedDev Ontario Small Business Services’ How to start a restaurant or catering business in Ontario.
- At the end of this article, we have also included links to media stories about different catering businesses started by newcomers across Canada.
As newcomer catering businesses grow, they need to employ others to help prepare, deliver, and serve food. This creates jobs for other newcomers without the financial risk of being business owners themselves. Employees may not need to communicate in English if management happens to speak their mother tongue.
Banquet halls and other special event facilities rely heavily on caterers, offering work on a part-time or as-needed basis. The events could be weddings, corporate meetings, or social and cultural celebrations with hundreds or thousands of people in attendance. Thankfully, there are a handful of online locations where caterers can list their services:
Cooking and food prep – the basic elements of catering
At its root, catering involves cooking and customer service. See our posts on the restaurant and quick service sector and the food processing and production sector for more guidance on these elements.
Regulation and certification
There is no official certification or licensing requirement for a person to work as a caterer in Canada. However, food service premises are often subject to regulation, including food safety certification. As explained on the City of Toronto website, “any establishment where food or milk is manufactured, processed, stored, handled, displayed, distributed, transported, sold or offered for sale, excluding private residences” is considered a food service premise. Other provinces and municipalities hold the same or similar definitions of food service premises. See here, for example, for the province of British Columbia.
Generally, in Ontario, a food service premise must have at least one employee on site at all times with a valid food safety certificate. These are fairly straightforward to obtain. The required courses are available online and qualifying exams can be requested in languages other than English. For more information about food safety certification, visit our post on restaurant and quick service employment.
Not only are there food safety regulations for catering businesses, but municipalities often have restrictive zoning by-laws. These by-laws may forbid food preparation facilities within some or all residential areas. For context, please refer to, Complex rules for home-based food spark need for commercial kitchens (CBC, July 18/15), and, Home-based food sellers flout Peel bylaws (Mississauga.com, Nov 28/12).
In some municipalities, home-based cooks can only sell their products at farmers’ markets. In other cases, such as outlined by the Government of Alberta, any home-based food business must be “physically separated from the rest of the house. All foods and equipment used in the food business must be stored in this area. You cannot use your household kitchen for your food business.” Following the law is the easiest way to peace of mind and freeing up time for business strategy and innovation.
Assuming compliance with food safety and zoning regulations, a newcomer might start a small-scale catering business from home. But as it progresses, more space becomes necessary, and production must be transferred to a commercial or community kitchen. Larger scale businesses benefit from these facilities because supplies are easier to access, they’re built to comply with local food safety regulations, and cumbersome equipment—such as deep fat fryers, mixers, and large commercial ovens—are shared.
Commercial kitchens are often designed to be shared by several food businesses. Sometimes, restaurants with limited hours rent out their kitchens while closed to customers. Businesses can rent these facilities for a range of $20 to $40/hour. Prices vary according to location, available equipment, and the time of day the kitchen will be rented. During peak hours, rental rates are higher.
Community kitchens can be within schools, churches, and community halls. They are typically used only for functions at these venues, but some may be willing to rent or lend them to newcomers as a form of support. Something to keep in mind is that not all community kitchens are suitable for all types of cooking. Some may only hold permits to reheat food or use small appliances like coffee makers. Their electrical wiring and ventilation systems may not be up to code for deep-fat frying. Newcomers considering the use of any kitchen space should ensure that they can legally prepare the items on their menus.
Newcomers can search available commercial and community kitchens using Google or Kijiji. We recommend narrowing the scope to your city and using “community kitchen”, “commercial kitchen rental”, or “commercial kitchen space rent” in the search field. Some kitchens are operated by non-profit organizations at very reasonable rates. See options in the GTA below:
- Alimentary Initiatives;
- Manning Canning;
- Commercial Kitchen Rentals Canada;
- FoodShare’s Toronto Kitchen Incubator;
- Toronto Commercial Kitchen Inventory; and
- Scadding Court Community Centre.
Need for English language proficiency
The need for English language proficiency in the catering industry depends on a number of factors. As noted above, if a newcomer is employed by a catering company where their mother tongue is spoken, there may be no need for developed English. Moreover, some catering businesses are created as social enterprises, specifically designed for newcomers and other refugees to find work.
If a newcomer wishes to start a catering company, they will likely need to interact in English with ease. Although some programs assist newcomers with paperwork to start a business in Canada, a business owner still has to manage marketing materials, handle financial records, communicate with customers and suppliers, and complete government forms related to taxes. The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks suggests that small business owners have a minimum of CLB 3 for reading and CLB 6-7 for speaking, listening, and writing.
Toronto’s Depanneur runs a non-profit called Newcomer Kitchen (currently on hiatus). Here, Syrian refugee women are invited to cook a weekly meal, sold online for pickup or delivery, with the proceeds shared among the cooks. Their goal is to create a model replicable by any newcomer group, in any restaurant kitchen, in any city in the world.
Another example of a social enterprise is Vancouver’s Flavours of Hope. As explained in the article, Trixie Ling raised her business to “offer refugee women who are passionate about food an opportunity to cook for members of their new community.” As such, Ling is willing to work with women of all ethnicities with varying levels of English language proficiency. At one Flavours of Hope dinner, Ling and the Kurdish women cooking the meal had no language in common, but worked together to serve up a feast. Similar social enterprises include Jeeran 55 in Lethbridge, Les Filles Fattoush in Montreal, and the 17 members of Toronto Enterprise Fund’s Food Cluster Program.
Media stories and blog posts
About Flavours of Hope, Vancouver, BC:
- Flavours of Hope helps immigrant and refugee women through food, cooking, and culinary traditions (The Georgia Straight, April 2/18).
- Flavours of Hope: Pop-up dinners connect refugee women to new communities (Vancouver is Awesome, Mar 26/18).
About Tayybeh, Vancouver, BC:
- Love in The Mix: Syrian catering company helps refugee women find community in Vancouver (CBC, Mar. 26/19).
- Tayybeh catering: A celebration of Syrian cuisine (CTV, Feb. 13/19).
- Syrian refugee women in Canada move into job market, bringing cooking skills with them (Canada’s National Observer, March 9/18).
- Vancouver’s wildly popular dinner series is helping Syrian women settle into a new home (Saveur, Nov 29/17).
- Syrian women find confidence and community in Canada through catering events (Canada’s National Observer, March 1/17).
About Syrian Cuisine Made with Love, Calgary, AB:
- Rita Khanchet Kallas: Syrian refugee, entrepreneur (Calgary Herald, Jan 3/17).
- Syrian refugee starts catering business in Calgary (CBC, April 2/16).
About Jeeran 55 – Syrian Kitchen, Lethbridge, AB:
- Eatery hopes to introduce Lethbridge to Syrian food, help newcomers when it opens (Global News, July 26/18).
About Damascus Foods, Altona, MB:
- Refugees boost Altona economy (Winnipeg Free Press, November 3/17).
About Rasmi’s Falafel, Orangeville, ON:
- Orangeville Syrian refugee family brings a taste of home to new family business (Orangeville.com, March 19/19).
About Karam Kitchen, Hamilton, ON:
- Syrian refugee women are building a hot new catering company (Chatelaine, Aug 18/17).
- Refugee women bring tastes of Syria to Canada’s tables (NewsDeeply, May 19/17).
- An all-women team of Syrian refugees has become Canada’s hottest new catering company (Saveur, Aug 18/16).
About Raj-Han Catering, Meaford, ON:
- Syrian refugee family hosts community dinner in celebration of one year in Meaford (The Meaford Independent, Feb 22/17).
About Baraka Syrian Home Cooking, Ottawa, ON:
- Catering for community (Midweek, March 5/18).
About Newcomer Kitchen, Toronto, ON
- Refugee-staffed meal service aims to bring Syrian food to new Toronto neighbourhoods (CBC, Nov 4/18).
- Newcomer Kitchen: A Community of Syrian Cooks Rises in Toronto (Culinary Backstreets, Oct 2/18).
- Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen signals an open armed ‘welcome home’ (Toronto Star, Jun 21/18).
About Beroea Supper Club, Toronto, ON
- Beroea Supper Club (President’s Choice YouTube video, May 30/18).
About Les Filles Fattoush, Montreal, QC:
- This group of Syrian refugees is Montreal’s newest catering service (Eater Montreal, June 5/18).
- Catering company helping integrate Syrian refugees (City News, video, May 28/18).
- Local business caters to Syrian refugees, helping women earn a living (CTV News, April 4/18).
- Syrian refugees nourish new life – and appetites – as Les Filles Fattoush (Montreal Gazette, March 9/18).
- Montreal catering company hiring Syrian refugees (Global News, video, Feb 21/18).
About Women Weaving Their Dreams, Montreal QC:
- Refugee women escape conflict to start over as caterers in Montreal (CBC, Dec 9/18).
General news/blog stories:
- 5 community kitchens making the GTA better through food (Local Love, Sep 27/18).
- Syrian refugee women in Canada move into job market, bringing cooking skills with them (Canada’s National Observer, Mar 9/18).
- Despite struggles, many Syrian refugees’ businesses are gaining traction (Globe and Mail, April 25/17).
- Cooks savour commercial kitchens offered at Scadding Court Community Centre (Toronto.com, Feb 4/16).