Jamaican Flavours In Canada
Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer
Some of Sharon Johnson Telfer’s fondest memories of life back in her hometown of Yallahs, St Thomas, are of her preparing meals for her father and his friends.
The ‘old man’ would give his stamp of approval when the food was up to par, but was just as quick to admonish her when things were off.
Those tough love sessions have served Telfer well in Toronto, Canada, where she migrated to in the early 1990s. In 1994, she opened Potluck Restaurant and Caterers which currently has six outlets in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
The eatery offers traditional Jamaican dishes such as curried goat and jerked chicken, but Telfer says she has diversified her menu in the last decade to satisfy Toronto’s fast-growing cosmopolitan population.
“We get a lot of Spanish, Chinese and Filipinos coming here. The Filipinos love Jamaican oxtail,” she said. “We also get a lot of Indians, especially the ones with the wrap (saris) and Muslims who want their food such as Halal prepared a certain way.”
Though their clientele has become more diverse, Potluck caters mainly to the just over 200,000 Jamaicans or persons of Jamaican heritage who live in the GTA. Its biggest competition comes from the numerous West Indian restaurants throughout Toronto, many of which are found on the Eglington strip, the city’s version of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.
To keep the flavour of her menu authentic, Telfer says she uses seasoning from an exclusive distributor in St Thomas rather than powders. She also creates her own jerk sauces.
Thinking of franchising
Three of Potluck’s locations are the Albion Centre Mall, Meadowvale Town Centre and Wild Water Kingdom, which all enjoy steady traffic. Telfer says the response has been so strong it has encouraged her to expand her business outside Toronto. “I’m thinking of going into franchising and have actually started the process, but it’s not as easy as people think,” she explained. “To go national you have to get people who are dedicated,” she added. “To survive as a franchise you have to be consistent.”
When she moved to Canada over 20 years ago, Telfer worked as a nurse to survive. But she got more satisfaction preparing spicy dishes than being a caregiver and, after testing the waters with some informal dates, she started Potluck 17 years ago.
Though the idea of launching a Potluck franchise excites her, Telfer says establishing the restaurant as a GTA landmark is also a mouth-watering prospect.
“I want to steady the stores I have now and probably open another two in Toronto,” she said. “This is a tough industry, and if you don’t know what you’re doing it can all go wrong.”