Cooking up community

Photo credit Glenn Ponka.JPG
Juno, Jess, Amy, and Reggie. Photo: Glenn Ponka

In 2009, The Growing Season popped up like a sunflower in Thunder Bay’s downtown Port Arthur neighbourhood, serving up rice bowls and hearty salads in a neighbourhood that had been hollowed out by the recent recession and the arrival, over the previous decades, of a shopping mall and big-box stores in the city’s centre.

The restaurant and juice bar, now co-owned by friends Amy Kelterborn, Jelena Psenicnik, and Sara Boyer, was onto something. In the last several years, Port Arthur has witnessed the beginnings of a retail renaissance, with the opening of trendy new shops, eateries, and galleries.

And while the revitalization of the sometimes-gritty neighbourhood is exciting, the shift has had an impact on all of the neighbourhood’s residents, including the more vulnerable: low-income folks, the homeless and precariously housed, and people with addictions and other mental health issues.

“It was really important to us not to displace the people who live in the community,” says Amy, 47. “We don’t want to push vulnerable people to the margins. Our stance has been that people are part of our community, and they should be around.”

What that means, she says, is understanding and celebrating the fact that The Growing Season welcomes all members of the neighbourhood it serves. If a street-involved person walks into the restaurant, they can count on a hot cup of coffee or perhaps a bowl of soup — and an equally warm and respectful response.

“This is the part of the job that I really like,” says Amy: “figuring out how to communicate with everybody who comes into the restaurant, to help them get what they need in a way that’s respectful.”

For example, one elderly man who lives on a fixed income has worked out an arrangement with the owners: he pays them a flat fee at the beginning each month when he receives his benefits cheque and eats lunch at the restaurant six days a week.

“He can’t actually afford to eat there every day, but this arrangement allows him to eat nutritious, local food six days a week. It gets him out of his house and around people every day,” says Amy. “And it kind of keeps him safe — if he didn’t show up one day, we’d get pretty suspicious. We’d go look for him.”

An employee once pointed out to the owners that they were giving away about $600 worth of coffee every year. It doesn’t faze them. “I don’t care,” says Amy. “That’s just what we do. “When I see a sign in a restaurant that says, ‘Washrooms for paying customers only,’ I find that so unwelcoming. That’s not how to run a business. That’s not a way to build community.”

The restaurants’ staff and customers have taken the owners’ lead. It’s not uncommon, says Amy, for customers to buy meals for less advantaged members of the community. And while their approach was never about making money, it certainly hasn’t hurt their bottom line: Amy, Jelena, and Sara opened their second restaurant in the neighbourhood, Rebel Salad, in July 2017, to meet the growing demand for their food and philosophy. Together, they offer part-time employment to roughly 40 staff.

Staff and customers aren’t the only one taking cues from the Growing Season’s owners. Their kids have grown up there: Jelena’s four, in their teens and 20s, all work at the two restaurants; and Sara’s elementary-schoolers are regular fixtures. Amy routinely brings her kids — five-year-old Juno, and Reggie, who’s almost 3 — to work. “And they’ll sit there and colour, but they’re also watching what I do. I’ll tell them, ‘This is the job that you’re going to do one day. So watch.’”

The kids are learning not only how to make a killer salad or smoothie, or wash dishes and sweep floors, but what it means to be part of their community, to live their values. The restaurants, for example, pay a living wage. They give a lot of thought to what it means to have a diverse staff. “It’s so easy to unconsciously default to hiring people who look and act like you because they already fit in,” says Amy. “So when we hire, we try to step out of our comfort zones to hire people who are not just like us. I find that when you do that you’re getting really valuable people.”

Together, the restaurants source as much of their food as possible from local providers, including produce in season from Roots to Harvest, a local organization that works with at-risk youth to build skills through agriculture. Local gardeners take the mountains of vegetable peelings and coffee grounds produced in the kitchens each day to use in their gardens. They were among the first eateries in Thunder Bay to stop offering plastic straws, and have never provided plastic cutlery for take-out, relying on thrift-store metal cutlery or chopsticks.

At home, says Amy, she and her partner, Jessica, take a similarly thrift-store approach to clothes and furniture, relying on hand-me-downs and used items as much as possible. Amy comes from a long line of butchers: “We’re just never going to be vegans,” she says — so she and Jess make it a point to buy as much of their family’s meat as they can from local farms. They live within walking distance of the restaurants, the kids’ school, and Jess’s clinic (she’s a naturopathic doctor). That makes it possible for them to own just one car; but they try to cycle or walk as much as possible, weather permitting.

As their kids grow up, Amy and Jess hope they’ll continue to be a part of not only the restaurants but of their larger community, finding ways to nurture family, friends, and neighbours from all walks of life.

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s ParentFull Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.

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