How a Queen West restaurant made the successful switch to grocery store
Iranian eatery Banu became a commissary during the pandemic – with lots of help from its community
By Kelsey Adams
Dec 8, 2020
Typically, if you live downtown and want pomegranate molasses, barberries or any other Iranian groceries, you have to travel north of Yonge and Steeles.
In April, Queen West Iranian restaurant Banu started selling all the ingredients needed to make their signature dishes.
A week and a half after closing on March 13, Samira, Amir Salar and Salome Mohyeddin, the siblings that co-own the restaurant, remodelled the space. They turned the eatery into a pantry with imported ingredients straight from Iran.
The pivot happened out of necessity and largely thanks to a GoFundMe campaign that raised $20,000 that helped them purchase a commercial fridge.
“If we didn’t have the market, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” Samira says. “The market has really helped us to be able to still cater to our patrons and have that relationship; because so much of not just restaurants but any business is having a one-on-one relationship with your customers.”
The Mohyeddins’ relationship with customers was cultivated and nurtured over 15 years. Samira went behind her siblings’ backs and launched the GoFundMe, knowing that pride might make them reluctant to crowdfund.
“We didn’t want to go to the bank necessarily, because that’s just more debt. And I said, you know what, I’m going to ask our community,” she says. “It helped us in those first couple months with rent, when there was no rent subsidy. It allowed us to put stuff on the shelves and totally change our business model. I started bawling when I saw the first $5,000 come in.”
Now Banu is the go-to spot for Persian pantry staples downtown. Every week the space adapts and changes as more supplies come in and they have to put up more shelves.
The Banu story
Banu is a family-run restaurant where patrons feel like family. The siblings know their regulars’ birthdays and other life milestones.
“We’ve had people who had their first date at the restaurant and now have an 11-year-old. It’s cliché but these things are what having a restaurant is all about,” said Samira. “If you want to make money, you don’t open a restaurant. It’s not about that. Hospitality, at its core, is about people and forming relationships. Otherwise, you know, you can just open a Subway.”
They consider themselves very lucky at a time when good fortune feels like a godsend.
Their landlord applied for the commercial rent subsidy, so they pay 25 per cent of their monthly rent. They also have an amenable wholesaler who charges after things sell rather than up front.
Still, they’re making 80 per cent less profit than usual, Samira says. Without the extra help, their loyal customers still wouldn’t be enough to stay afloat.
Adapting to all the changing regulations and the second shut down has been another hurdle.
“People who own restaurants are very malleable individuals, but this pandemic has really shown us you have to be nimble in order to survive,” Samira says.
When Toronto entered the second lockdown, Banu was much more prepared and better stocked than in April.
When Banu was functioning as a restaurant, Amir Salar would source ingredients from Thornhill and North York, an area Samira refers to jokingly as “Tehranto.”
“Normally, you would have to drive 30 minutes or jump on the subway for 45 minutes to be able to buy the bread, the rice, all of your Persian pantry staples. Pomegranate molasses isn’t that easy to find, or proper saffron. There are a lot of younger Iranians and younger people who want access to these products and now they don’t have to go up north.”
Their wholesaler imports items like pomegranate molasses (used often in Northern Iranian cooking for vinaigrettes), marinades and stews directly from Iran. They sell fresh and dry ingredients but also ready-made items for takeout, like khoresht, a type of stew. They also sell pre-marinated meats like saffron lemon cornish hen.
Because of longer importing periods, sometimes they’ll sell out of something and not get a restock for a month or more. Dates, barberries, organic honey from Tabriz, moseer (dried garlic shallots) and Persian pistachios are popular items that people reserve because they go fast.
Their entire restaurant menu is also still available for delivery or takeout.
The bigger picture
Banu plans to keep the commissary after restaurants are allowed to fully reopen. Their patrons have enjoyed getting familiar with the ingredients they were eating when dine-in was allowed.
This sort of meaningful interaction between owner and customer is key to Banu’s success. Samira notes that although many restaurants are being impacted financially by the pandemic, the big ones are closing more often.
“I’ve noticed that the mom-and-pop restaurants, whose owners actually work in the kitchens or on the floor, are the ones that are doing better than these really well funded, big restaurants. Big restaurants have no skin in the game. They’re not gonna lose their house if the business goes under. But people like us, we actually suffer.”
She points to Pam’s Roti on Bloor West as an example of a community coming together to keep small a business open.
“Restaurants mean something to neighbourhoods. They’re not just places to shove food in your mouth, they build communities.”
This is the first in a series spotlighting small businesses across Toronto. As the push to support local becomes even more crucial, we want to highlight the trials and the triumphs that shops, restaurants, cafes and online retailers are experiencing in this city.If you want to suggest a business, contact us here and select “Editorial (Life” from the drop-down menu.
Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist born and raised in Toronto. Before covering food, life and culture for NOW Magazine, she wrote about music, art and film for several publications, including the Globe and Mail, The FADER, Complex CA and Canadian Art.