The Re-Seasoning Coalition is dedicated to increasing the representation of Black Canadians in foodservice through research, programming and sharing real stories like Sasilka’s.
By Elle Asiedu, Co-founder, The Re-Seasoning Coalition
When restaurateur Sasilka Shallangwa talks about her beginnings in the food industry, the story inevitably comes back to Lagos, Nigeria where her mother owned a chain of successful restaurants. She believes it’s city where you can find everything and be anything. But it’s also a place where resilience is required to survive. It’s no surprise then, that Shallangwa’s restaurant, SK Cookks (the S stands for santi, meaning food coma in Hausa and the K for kitchen), is her third business in Ontario.
A NEW WORLD
Sasilka’s Canadian food story began when she immigrated to Canada from Nigeria as a teen, seeking better educational opportunities. Although she had travelled extensively throughout Europe and the United States—often finding herself in a sea of non-Black faces—Shallangwa was shocked when students at her international boarding school audibly expressed their disgust at the Nigerian food served to herself and her peers one lunch period. “They turned up their noses at the smell of our food and someone even threw a banana while we were eating,” she remembers sadly. “We were paying so much to attend this school, but we and our culture weren’t respected.”
While enrolled at York University, Shallangwa cooked for homesick friends and colleagues, thinking little of the endeavour until one friend asked her to whip up an especially expensive dish. It would be ayamase stew, also known as “Designer Stew”, that would open the door to her taking catering and meal prep seriously.“ A friend asked how much it would cost to make him some and I didn’t have an answer, so I said I’d make it for free,” she remembers, laughing at her approach. “But he insisted on paying, so I bought everything and told him he owed $60. He paid, and a lightbulb went off in my head.”
BRINGING LAGOS TO TORONTO
That experience changed the way the second-generation entrepreneur thought about her place in Canadian society. She realized there was a gap she could fill without needing to water down her culture. “At the time and even today, there are lots of Nigerian Millennials who have immigrated and are looking for a taste from home,” Shallangwa explains, summarizing her business plan. “But there’s also a stigma associated with Nigerian restaurants, so I wanted to retell that story.”
In 2017, she went from feeding friends and Instagram followers to opening the first iteration of SK Cookks in Etobicoke, ON. Not only did it break the mold, it also became a place for West African immigrant and first-generation communities to come together. Three years later, Shallangwa relocated to downtown Toronto where the aim was to ensure foodies from across the globe had a chance to taste all that her homeland had to offer.
Like many in foodservice, SK Cookks struggled with labour shortages during the pandemic, but has instituted a series of incentives to keep employees coming back. In addition to mostly hiring people of colour and new immigrants, her team keeps retention rates high through Employee of the Month initiatives (which give recipients a raise) and by covering transportation costs so commuters find it easier to make the trip.
Despite the success of the restaurant and its popularity in the neighbourhood, there are still negative experiences that remind Shallangwa of the importance of never giving up. “Recently we found out that we’re being charged rent 30% higher than anyone else on the strip, but we aren’t letting our anger drive our decision-making. We have to move forward,” she says with conviction. “Seeing the progress I’ve made with the restaurant makes me hopeful about the future. I try to keep counting my blessings.”
133 Jefferson Avenue,
Toronto, ON M6K 3E4