Over 12,500km away from home, Paw Nay Htoo turned her childhood experiences into a business. Growing up in both Burma and Thailand, Htoo’s eclectic upbringing shaped her decision to open a Burmese-Thai restaurant upon her arrival in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Like many newcomers, Htoo and her husband moved to Thunder Bay to be closer to family already established in Northwestern Ontario. In September 2013, less than a decade after their move from Thailand, Htoo opened Salween Restaurant along with her friend-turned-business partner. As the only Burmese-Thai restaurant in Thunder Bay, Salween’s reputation for delicious food spread quickly with most of their customers discovering Salween online.
Despite their success, Htoo maintains every aspect of the restaurant’s operations, declaring with a chuckle: “I cook, I clean, I wash dishes, I serve – everything!” Her hands-on approach has facilitated unique networking opportunities, proving it’s not all work for the Thunder Bay newcomer. “I play volleyball with a bunch of people in the community that speak the same language as me,” Htoo adds, “One of our customers works with the Multicultural Association so he told us to join.”
The friendly, community-driven mindset of Thunder Bay has been a very positive experience for Paw Nay Htoo, who grew up in a small refugee camp. “I enjoy that Thunder Bay is such a small city, and it’s good for my family. It’s not rushed,” says Htoo, “I love Thunder Bay, honestly.”
Next year, Ayesha Raggi Gonzalez will be celebrating the 15th anniversary of her move from Cuba to Canada. Upon her arrival in Toronto in 2000, Gonzalez spent less than a year in the metropolitan centre before choosing Thunder Bay as her new Canadian home. Explaining that “[Toronto was] too busy,” Gonzalez recognized her potential for success in the Northwestern Ontario town.
Says Gonzalez, “My cousin was already living in [Thunder Bay] and I thought it was a good place to start my life considering I was from a small city…I thought it was an easy place to accomplish what I wanted to do.”
In Toronto, Gonzalez struggled to find a job in her field commensurate to her experience in Cuba. “I have a university degree but I wasn’t able to work in Canada without a Canadian degree, because it is very specific in industrial design. I always liked art and design,” says Gonzalez. Confronted with a challenge many immigrants face, Gonzalez created opportunity and contacted PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise for assistance to start her own art studio in 2005. With help from the not-for-profit organization, and their services tailored to aspiring women entrepreneurs, Gonzalez received the training and support necessary to become a successful business owner in Canada.
Within seven years, Gonzalez’s enterprise grew from a studio operating out of her home to Habana Gallery, an art gallery in it’s own commercial space - also owned by the entrepreneur. The gallery is named after her hometown of Havana, Cuba as a tribute to the cultural hub that first sparked her passion for the arts.
Churrasqueria Galo may be hard to say but it’s certainly not hard to swallow. This delightful restaurant has been serving authentic Portuguese cuisine in Thunder Bay for the last six months. Owner, Clara Sousa, moved to Thunder Bay with her husband over a decade ago with a vision of opening their own restaurant. Today, they are living that dream together.
“Having your own national cuisine in a city like Thunder Bay makes us so proud,” says Sousa. “It has been a lot of hard work but there are really no words to express how happy we are to see our business vision become a reality.”
Sousa describes that she received a wealth of support from Thunder Bay and its outlying communities during her business planning and start-up phases. Her biggest challenge to date is trying to get the word out to potential diners. “People either just don’t know about us, or they don’t know what to expect from our food,” she says.
Traditionally, Portuguese cuisine is designed to satisfy the appetite and reinforce the bonds of home and family. Churrasqueria Galo has all the right ingredients to fulfill these traditions and is a family business above all else. The menu includes mouthwatering family recipes that have been passed down through generations and every meal is cooked by Sousa and her family, including her two children.
“Our food has always been inspired by family cooking. In our culinary culture, flavourful dishes bring everyone together for conversations and laughter, and also provide an alternative for those who are too busy to make meals. We make healthy, tasty and homemade food for today’s fast-paced lifestyle,” says Sousa.
A lot of dishes found at Churrasqueria Galo are seafood focused, blending flavours and techniques dating back centuries. The Portuguese were leading fishermen and explorers of the fifteenth century so it’s no surprise to see codfish, sole and shrimp in many of the selections. The Portuguese were also renowned for helping map the globe and bring rare spices home. They were among the first to experiment with cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg, modifying their dishes to take advantage of the new flavors.
“Almost every ingredient we use in our dishes is imported from Portugal,” she explains. “We are also proud to buy local chicken, pork and beef. There really is nothing else like our restaurant in Thunder Bay. In Southern Ontario, Portuguese restaurants are on every street corner and have turned into a definite favourite of food lovers.”
Churrasqueria Galo offers in-house dining, take-out and delivery, along with catering for businesses, luncheons, weddings and other private functions. For first timers, Sousa recommends trying the chicken (Piri Piri), rice and potatoe combo. For those who are more daring, she suggests the plovo (octopus), which may look intimidating but is extremely friendly to the taste buds!
As the Portuguese say; “Bom apetite!”
Andrea Novoa was quite shocked when she moved to Thunder Bay from Columbia and discovered that there wasn’t anywhere in the community to learn or practice ethnic dancing. As a former professional belly dancer and coming from a culture where dancing is as common as riding a bike, Novoa had found her niche opportunity in Thunder Bay and launched the World Dance Centre.
The World Dance Studio has been operating out of the new Thunder Bay Centre for Change for over a year. Today, Andrea has over eighty students attending more than 20 different types of dancing classes from around the world. Novoa explains that dancing has been a part of our world culture since the beginning of time, which means that it is for everyone and anyone; women and men, both young and old, and of all abilities.
“Everybody can dance,” says Novoa. “When people say they can’t, I tell them that it’s simply not true. Learning to dance is like learning a language. You are not expected to show up to your first class speaking the language. You have to learn the language word by word (step by step), keep practicing and then start putting phrases together.”
Novoa never imagined herself as a businesswoman, but says that she has received tremendous support from the Thunder Bay & District Entrepreneur Centre. “It is a really nice support system,” she explains. “They welcomed any questions I had. People cannot be afraid to approach the Centre for help; they are there to make your life so much easier.” The Thunder Bay & District Entrepreneur Centre helped Novoa apply for grants, write her business plan, and even assisted her with the marketing and networking aspects of building her business.
Novoa, who worked in Las Vegas as a performer prior to moving to Canada, feels that Thunder Bay has a lot of needs in terms of new business and encourages others to take advantage of these opportunities. “Do something that no one else is doing… create a change. Bring something interesting into the community,” she urges.
The World Dance Centre offers most of its classes in the evenings with styles to suit all ages and ability levels. Instructors bring rhythms from the Caribbean and West Africa with Afro-Caribbean dance. They fuse the elements of classical and folk Indian dance into Bollywood dance, and they also bring Bhangra, Thai, Persian, Argentine Tango and Hip Hop inspired styles to Thunder Bay.
Novoa hopes to see her studio evolve into more than just one classroom. With a passion for learning about other cultures, Novoa plans to study more dance forms and introduce them to the community through her studio.