Peterborough, Canada

Cooking Up Opportunity

Newcomer Kitchen Peterborough

May 2, 2019

Empowering newcomer women through cooking becomes a perfect recipe for acquiring workplace English and entrepreneurial skills.

Increasingly, smaller and rural municipalities are seeing the economic, demographic and social potential immigration brings to them. Providing a welcoming and supportive environment is key to attracting those newcomers. Newcomers realize that large urban centres are not the only places for them to find success.

Peterborough gets that. Around 800 immigrants arrive in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada each year. The city frames itself as an alternative for newcomers to settle with their families, a place where they can find opportunity while not being too far from large urban centres like Toronto.

According to Peterborough’s New Canadians Centre (NCC) Director of Community Development, Yvonne Lai, it’s up to the cities to understand “that attraction and long-term retention are tied in to economic development and social inclusion. Newcomers will stay and enjoy the benefits of being in small cities if they can be securely employed and their families are supported in their growth. Small city/rural communities provide an ideal pace and environment for a newcomer to settle and integrate. And, increasingly, the cities and communities that see newcomers are assets, both economic and social, will thrive.”

The backdrop 

Between 2015 and 2018 over 400 Syrian refugees settled in Peterborough. Like other Canadian cities, the community actively welcomed them. In early 2016 volunteers at Peterborough’s New Canadians Centre (NCC) wanted to help. They were inspired by Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen and wanted to replicate it.

Food and settlement go together no matter where you are. Food is a way to bring people together to build connections around sharing culture. It also provides inroads to entrepreneurism and economic inclusion for newcomers.

The seed of Newcomer Kitchen Peterborough was planted, focused on empowering newcomer women through cooking, learning workplace English and entrepreneurial skills.

The volunteers brought enthusiasm and experience, including experience working in the food industry. But they began to become overwhelmed with the complexities of the project. NCC staff took on a more formal supportive role. NCC Community Development Worker Reem Ali had been supporting the project and became the project coordinator, working closely with the women and community partners.

While they looked at Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen as a source of inspiration, NCC’s project would go another route. Instead of the women being salaried workers, with access to a kitchen once a week, the Peterborough Newcomer Kitchen would create a business led by the women. It was a more intensive undertaking, but one that has borne fruit.
Creating an ethnic women’s catering group isn’t new. For more than 2 decades in communities across Canada you can find groups like the Afghan Women’s Catering Group, started in 1997, or more recently, Karam Kitchen in Hamilton, Toronto Newcomer Kitchen, or New Canadians’ Kitchen. Like these other initiatives, the Peterborough Newcomer Kitchen is not simply about food, but about capacity, integration and inclusion.

To make it work required a community effort.

Partnerships are key

Starting as a volunteer-led initiative without funding, collaborating with local organizations was essential. And the community stepped up. From getting access to certified kitchen space to cook in to ensuring that the Syrian women took and passed food handler certification to coming up with menu ideas, it was intensive work.

After bringing together 16 motivated Syrian women, NCC applied for foundation grant through Peterborough’s Luke Four Foundation. This gave them enough initial seed money to pilot the project for a year. Ali also connected with with the Nourish Project, which allowed them to leverage the initial seed money to do even more. Nourish works to create healthy, inclusive communities through food programming and food literacy with vulnerable groups in the community.

There was a natural connection between the two projects. Since November 2017 Ali and Nourish’s food facilitator, certified chef  Amanda Harrison, have worked together with the Syrian women to coordinate the Newcomer Kitchen.

Where would they cook?

As we’ve noted in the Scadding Court Business out of the Box story, accessing a certified kitchen is costly. For groups just starting up with an idea, that upfront cost can end a good idea before it can even begin. Peterborough’s Jewish Community Centre (JCC) came on board as a key partner with their certified kitchen. As a partner, NCC was able to use their funding to buy some kitchen equipment, for JCC’s kitchen. Since graduatng from training in September 2018, they women continue to use this kitchen using the kitchen for free.

Building a foundation

Ali says that the women were all excellent cooks. But taking cooking skills into a commercial enterprise is completely different. The women not only needed to learn how to cook in a commercial kitchen, understand food handling and public health expectations, but also how to run a business from marketing, to pricing their food, to customer service.
Nourish provided their standardized training modules, including basic kitchen skills. Ali says that the training flowed organically. As they identified needed skill development, they worked with Nourish to build next module. Because the women simply cooked from experience, they didn’t typically measure their ingredients. For a commercial enterprise, they needed to standardize their recipes. A numeracy module was created that allowed the women to familiarize themselves with measuring utensils to create their recipes.

The women needed to get certified as Food Handlers. Peterborough Public Health was able to get copies of Toronto Public Health’s Arabic translation of the Food Handler Training Manual. They have been an important partner, supporting and certifying the women in the kitchen.

Beyond kitchen skills, NCC also worked with the women to develop their business skills. Ali says that it was important to have the women make their own decisions together, including whether or not to launch a business. She says it is a core part of the project that the women own their own path, and decide on the path they wanted to take.
As Nourish provided the core kitchen skills, NCC brought in other local female food entrepreneurs to support the women. They provided mentoring and helped managed expectations of what it meant to start a food business in Peterborough. Ali says that these practical lessons were key. The women still recall what those entrepreneurs told them, it has impacted how they run their business today.


Running a food business is demanding. Of the 16 women who started, four have continued together to establish and run the Newcomer Kitchen. In 2018 the women were ready. Their graduation project, a booth at the local Veg Fest, would be their public business launch.

They were immediately put to the test.

After running a full day of cooking in the kitchen, the women discovered the fridge had not been at the right temperature. They had to make a decision. They were starting to build some reputation in the community and couldn’t afford anyone getting sick or the food not tasting good. They made a difficult business decision. The food went into garbage. Ali says this became a defining moment for the women and their business. They would survive, together.

Since September 2018 they women have had a few catering gigs, but their biggest success came by way of the Peterborough Regional Farmers’ Market. They were offered free space to sell at the Market. The four women continue to work together and are regulars at the market. “It has been an enriching experience for these women,” Ali explains. “They have had a chance to put all of their new learning into practice in a supportive, welcoming, low-pressure environment with a steady flow of customers.” At the market since December 1st, the women continue to experience the support and sense of belonging from the community.

It’s a long way from where they were just a short year earlier. According to Ali, the impact of the Farmers’ Market support and being regular vendors has been transformative for the women.  After the first three weeks at the market, the women told her they felt different. They have changed, they’re no longer the same people they were a year ago. They are confident in themselves and what they are doing. Ali knows how hard it was for them to get there.

Throughout it all, Ali says that the work the women have done together became a support system. For a project like this to be replicated requires working closely with the women as a facilitator and having a community partner like Nourish. As well, having the women conceive of and drive the business is key. Ali says this is the advantage of a small community and an approach focused on ownership by the women. They make the decisions. They own it.

It was important not just support the group, she says, but the women as individuals. Ali says that individual evaluations were a key turning point for many of the women. They felt valued as individuals, and that their voices were heard. After some of their initial one-on-one supports, the women acted differently. Their confidence grew and they felt like they, as individuals, mattered to the group’s success.

Ultimately, according Yvonne Lai, everyone benefits from their success: “The community benefits by embracing the mentality that what is good for newcomers is good for the community as a whole. Newcomers fill labour gaps and should be considered for business succession. Small city/rural communities provide an ideal pace and environment for a newcomer to settle and integrate.” Peterborough’s Newcomer Kitchen is a shining example of that.

Making it Work for You:

  • Take inspiration from other places, and then make it your own.
  • When helping integrate refugees into employment, being flexible about meeting their training needs can be as important as adding additional supports.
  • Build on your community relationships to leverage different strengths. Full funding is great, but it shouldn't stop you from starting to move forward with good ideas that can build on the work that others are doing.
  • Have a collaboration mindset.

For this Good Idea contact:

Reem Ali, New Canadians Centre Peterborough
Peterborough, ON, Canada,
(705) 743 0882 ext. 238