Without strong English language skills, an understanding of Canadian workplace culture, and Canadian work experience, newcomers may have some difficulty finding work in Canada. Catering is one way a newcomer can get a foot in the door, either as an entrepreneur or as an employee.
The catering industry could be a good choice for newcomers who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. This is an option for both men and women who already have a background in cooking and preparing food for their families, even if they’ve never cooked professionally.
Catering businesses can be started on a very small scale and with a small budget, if necessary. There are a number of different options in terms of the type of food produced, production locations, and hours committed to the business, which make it easier to develop a workable business plan. There is flexibility in managing your own business, which may be particularly attractive to parents, as a way to balance paid employment with family obligations. And, as described in The Mystery of the Baklava Man (The Tyee, April 5/18), it’s a way to keep busy and earn money, if other jobs are hard to come by.
For more details regarding entrepreneurship for newcomers, see our post on Entrepreneurship – starting a business in Canada. See, too, this Government of Canada website, Restaurant and catering start-up checklist. At the end of this post, we have also included links to media stories about many different catering businesses which have been started by refugee newcomers across Canada.
Newcomers may start their own catering businesses, but they may also need to employ others to help prepare, deliver, and serve food. This creates job opportunities for other newcomers, without requiring them to take on the risks of starting their own businesses. As employees, they may not need to communicate in English, if the business owners can communicate with them in their own language.
Banquet halls and other special event facilities also offer employment opportunities in catering, often on a part-time, or as-needed basis. Events in these facilities include weddings, other social and cultural celebrations, and corporate meetings and often involve serving hundreds or thousands of people at a time.
Cooking and food prep – basic elements of catering
At its root, catering involves food production/cooking and customer service. See our posts on the restaurant and quick service sector as well as the food processing and production sector for more about 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, for example, “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 a similar definition of a food service premise. (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 who has a valid food safety certificate. It is usually not difficult or time consuming to obtain such a certificate. The courses required may often be taken online and it may be possible to take the qualifying exam in languages other than English.
For more information about a food safety certificate, 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 not allow food preparation facilities to be located within some or all residential areas. See, for example: Complex rules for home-based food spark need for commercial kitchens (CBC, July 18/15).
In some municipalities, for instance, home-based cooks can only sell their products at farmers’ markets. In other cases, such as outlined on a Government of Alberta website, any home-based food business in that province 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.” For a further example, see: Home-based food sellers flout Peel bylaws (Mississauga.com, Nov 28/12).
Assuming compliance with food safety and zoning regulations, a newcomer might choose to start a catering business on a small scale at home. However, as the business grows, it may become necessary or wise to transfer production to a commercial or community kitchen.
For those planning to start a catering business on a larger scale, use of a shared, commercial or community kitchen may make more sense than renting and equipping their own, dedicated facilities.
Use of a commercial or community kitchen is a relatively simple way for newcomers to comply with local regulations regarding the facilities in which food products may be prepared for sale. As an added benefit, the catering entrepreneur will have easier access to supplies and appliances, such as deep fat fryers, mixers, and large commercial ovens.
Commercial kitchens are often designed to be shared by several small food businesses. In some cases, however, restaurants with limited hours may rent out their kitchen spaces while they are closed to customers. Small food businesses can rent commercial kitchen facilities by the hour in order to prepare their products. Rental costs vary according to location, the equipment available to use, and the time of day the kitchen will be rented. During peak hours, rental rates are higher. Rates typically range from approximately $20/hour to $40/hour.
Community kitchens may be located within schools, churches, and community halls. They are typically used only for functions at those venues. However, some venues may be willing to rent out their kitchen spaces, or may even be willing to let newcomers use them for free, as a way to support refugee newcomers, for example. Something to keep in mind, however, is that not all community kitchens are suitable for all types of cooking. For example, some community kitchens may only hold permits to use small appliances like coffee makers and to reheat food. They may not have the required wiring and ventilation systems in place to permit things like deep-fat frying. Newcomers who are considering use of a community kitchen for a food business should ensure that they will be able to legally prepare their food products in that kitchen.
To find commercial and community kitchens that are available, simply Google or search a website such as Kijiji for “commercial kitchen space rent”, “commercial kitchen rental”, or “community kitchen” in your city. Some of these kitchens are operated by non-profit organizations at very reasonable rates. In the GTA, see for example:
- Toronto Commercial Kitchen Inventory;
- Cooks savour commercial kitchens offered at Scadding Court Community Centre (Toronto.com, Feb 4/16)
Need for English language proficiency
The need for English language proficiency varies within the catering industry and is dependent on a number of factors.
In some cases, very little English language proficiency is required. As noted above, if a newcomer is working as an employee for someone else’s catering business, and speaks the same language as the business owner, there may be no need for English proficiency.
As well, some catering businesses are developed specifically as social enterprises, as a way to offer gainful employment to refugees.
In Toronto, Newcomer Kitchen is a non-profit operation of Depanneur. Here, Syrian refugee women are invited to cook a weekly meal in its kitchen. The meals are sold online for pickup or delivery, and the proceeds are shared among the cooks. Their goal is to create a model that can be replicated with any newcomer group, in any restaurant kitchen, in any city in the world.
Another social enterprise example in this sector is based in Vancouver. As explained in the article, “Flavours of Hope: Pop-up dinners connect refugee women to new communities,” Trixie Ling developed her business as a way 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 who have varying levels of English language proficiency. At one of the dinners prepared by Flavours of Hope, Ling and the Kurdish women who cooked the meal had no language in common, but worked together to serve a feast to diners. Similar social enterprises include Jeeran 55 – Syrian Kitchen in Lethbridge and Les Filles Fattoush in Montreal.
If a newcomer wishes to start his or her own catering company, higher levels of English proficiency will be needed. Although there are some programs that can assist newcomers with completing the paperwork required to start a business in Canada, an owner of a catering business would need to interact with customers and suppliers, manage marketing materials, handle financial records, and complete government paperwork (such as relating to goods and services taxes and income tax). The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks website suggests that small business owners have a minimum of CLB 6-7 in speaking, listening, and writing, with a minimum CLB 3 for reading.
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:
- 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)
- Syrian refugee women in Canada move into job market, bringing cooking skills with them (Canada’s National Observer, March 9/18)
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 Karam Kitchen, Hamilton, ON:
- Syrian refugee women are building a hot new catering company (Chatelaine, Aug 18/17)
- An all-women team of Syrian refugees has become Canada’s hottest new catering company (Saveur, Aug 18/16)
- Refugee women bring tastes of Syria to Canada’s tables (NewsDeeply, May 19/17)
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
- Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen signals an open armed ‘welcome home’ (Toronto Star, Jun 21/18)
- 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)
About Beroea Supper Club, Toronto, ON
- Beroea Supper Club (President’s Choice YouTube video, May 30/18)
About Les Filles Fattoush, Montreal, QC:
- Catering company helping integrate Syrian refugees (City News, video, May 28/18)
- Montreal catering company hiring Syrian refugees (Global News, video, Feb 21/18)
- This group of Syrian refugees is Montreal’s newest catering service (Eater Montreal, June 5/18)
- Syrian refugees nourish new life – and appetites – as Les Filles Fattoush (Montreal Gazette, March 9/18)
- Local business caters to Syrian refugees, helping women earn a living (CTV News, April 4/18)
About Women Weaving Their Dreams, Montreal QC:
General news/blog stories:
- Despite struggles, many Syrian refugees’ businesses are gaining traction (Globe and Mail, April 25/17)
- Syrian refugee women in Canada move into job market, bringing cooking skills with them (Canada’s National Observer, Mar 9/18)
- 5 community kitchens making the GTA better through food (Local Love, Sep 27/18)