Art Gallery of Mississauga Artist in Residence

Words by Camille Turner, Artist-in-Resident AGM

His dahl is the best I’ve ever tasted. His empire has expanded from a food mart in the ’70s to include Charlie’s Meat & Seafood, and my personal favourite Charlie’s Caribbean Cuisine. For many West Indian families in central Mississauga, his shop provides a welcome taste of home. His name is Charlie Budhoo, and even after 20 years as a successful entrepreneur, you can still find him at the counter, chatting with customers.

I first heard about Charlie’s from one of his long-time customers who told me that Charlie’s was where he went to get tickets to events in the West Indian community of Mississauga. Intrigued, I approached Charlie and requested an interview. A humble man, he insisted I speak to his son Derek instead. The admiration is mutual. “Some businessmen get big and then you don’t see them in their business,” Derek says. “My dad’s not that way. And I don’t want to be like that either.” The business is in Derek’s blood. He remembers hanging out in the store as a child, on evenings, weekends and sick days from school. “The store was my babysitter and my doctor,” he laughs.

Charlie arrived in Toronto with his wife in the ’70s. Having run a tailoring business in Guyana, Charlie’s first job in Toronto was with textile company Holiday Knitwear. In the 1980s, however, Charlie decided to strike out on his own. He opened Charlie’s West Indian Foods at Pape and Gerrard, later moved to Scarborough while holding onto his job. In 1991, brought his family to Mississauga and opened Charlie’s West Indian Food Mart, taking the plunge into full-time entrepreneurship.

The grocery store, along with Charlie’s Meat and Seafood and Charlie’s Caribbean Cuisine, are family run businesses. Charlie’s wife left her job to focus on the family businesses, and according to Derek, is the “backbone of the company.” Charlie’s daughter Sharda, who successfully ran their banquet hall at Albion and Finch for five years, now also helps with the food mart and restaurants. And Derek, who recently graduated from Sheridan College’s Business Administration and Marketing program, joined the business full time 2004.

“My life is all about the business,” Derek admits. He carries on the family tradition of working 14 hour days, 6 days a week. During the holiday season, it is not unusual for him to work 15 days straight without time off. There is little time for anything outside of work, but his family still manages to have dinner together once a week. The arrival of his sister Anita’s three children, brought the family even closer together. Derek also relaxes by going to the gym regularly and taking a vacation every three months.

I spoke with him about how the LRT planned for Hurontario, which will cut off two lanes of traffic, will affect his business. While confident that the LRT will eventually bring more people into the area, Derek also points out that when the street expanded from two lanes to four, the shop lost part of its parking lot, making it difficult for their customers. He worries that more of the parking lot will be shaved off to accommodate the LRT system. As it is, their grocery store is already outgrowing its current space—the shelves are bulging with groceries, and customers can barely squeeze past each other in the narrow aisles. Charlie’s needs to expand, but in this plaza, where they’ve already taken over three spots, there is nowhere else to go.

Standing upon the shoulders of his father, Derek’s ability to see the future enables the business to adapt to changing times. Sounding like a wise, young sage, Derek suggests that perhaps the restaurant rather than the food mart represents the future of the business. “The new generation doesn’t cook as much as their elders did,” he says. “In the past, there was a demand for groceries, but now people want to eat in restaurants.” He adds that multicultural marriages have created a new market. People who are not of Caribbean origin but have perhaps married West Indians are aware of the food and like the spices. “Maybe we’ll build our own plaza with fantastic parking for our customers,” Derek says with a smile. “Maybe, in the future, we will open a chain.”

Explore 905 is an Artist-in-Residence project by Camille Turner for the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM). Turner is interested in the hidden histories of the city, and is attracted to the urban messy vitality in Mississauga’s strip malls. Over the course of her residency, she will meet with the people behind these strip mall institutions—their stories are just as much as part of the history of Mississauga as larger scale front page news items, and Turner is determined to bring them to light.

Turner’s residency at the AGM is part of Roots and Branches, a programme generously funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation that situates artists within the city, to organize social practice projects that engage with the community.

Charlie’s West Indian Food Mart
3055 Hurontario St.
(North of Dundas on East side of Hurontario)

Charlies Caribbean Cuisine
3055 Hurontario St. Mississauga

Charlie’s Meat and Seafood
3065 Hurontario St.

Photo credits:
Charlies Caribbean Cuisine storefront and food pictures courtesy of Yelp