By Lloyd Dolha
SharonThis is a Christmas story. It’s also a story about guts, determination and an overwhelming drive to succeed in one of Canada’s worst neighbourhoods.
It’s a story about Sharon Greyeyes, an Ojibway woman from the Broken Head Ojibway First Nation in Manitoba. A confident and caring single mother of nine children, and a grandmother seven times over, Sharon’s dream is to open her own storefront restaurant to cater to the impoverished aboriginal and non-aboriginal people of Vancouver’s downtown eastside.
Sharon’s unique product has attracted a dedicated clientele – one that grows each day. She makes stuffed bannock, of every conceivable kind, selling largely to the patrons of east end bars as a way to generate extra income for her large and growing family.
“I started off about ten years ago as a way to make extra money for Christmas presents for my nine children because living off of welfare as a single mom, I didn’t have the money for presents come Christmas time,” says Sharon.
Last spring a chance to realize her dream came one huge step closer. She took a 12-week course called “Start Your Own Business” at the First Nations Employment and Enterprise Centre; the gist of which was to develop a personal business plan.
There she conceived of “Sharon’s Original Bannock”, a sole proprietorship storefront operation selling stuffed bannock to walk-in traffic, local aboriginal organizations and government agencies.
Armed with her business plan and more than 300 testimonials from satisfied customers, Sharon made the rounds to aboriginal capital corporations, Aboriginal Business Canada and credit unions to start up her business. But she lacked the necessary equity to qualify for loans from standard lending institutions.
“I just want to open a place for my elders to come and have a decent meal that they can afford without being bothered by anyone,” said Sharon.
Undeterred, she turned to her many friends who also believed in her dream, borrowing almost $10,000 to secure licensed baking facilities and a small storefront space on East Hastings.
She cut herself off from welfare and slept on the floor of the shop for three months while making fresh baked goods to sell daily.
“I make a variety of stuffed bannock, fresh daily, like vegetable beef, pepperoni and cheese, chicken stew and chili. You can also order your own custom-made bannock of whatever you want,” says Sharon.
Sharon also makes delicious tarts that literally fly off her trays. These include butter tarts, apple, cherry, blueberry, strawberry, pumpkin, lemon and mincemeat.
Sharon has also won the grudging respect of the crackheads and heroin junkies who hang out on the corner of Hastings and Carroll.
“Every morning when I go out to sweep the sidewalk clear of needles and junk, I would chase them with my broom. I told them not to dirty up my storefront and I would feed them,” said Sharon.
Now when Sharon comes out in the mornings, they scatter giving Sharon and her broom a wide berth.
New look and marketing strategy
“I see tremendous potential for Sharon,” said Ernest Gray, of Haida Kloo Consulting, Sharon’s business advisor.
“I compare it to newer foods like samosa or sushi. They came out of nowhere and now they’re everywhere. Sharon has that same kind of potential,” says Grey.
Grey is helping Sharon develop a marketing strategy for the lower mainland and additional start-up funds from PEACH or Partners for Economic And Community Help – a lending agency that was created as part of the Vancouver Agreement for the revitalization of the downtown eastside.
PEACH is a “lender of last resort”, dealing only with applicants who cannot access loans through regular financial institutions. PEACH supports economic development initiatives that will result in job creation through the federal Western Economic Diversification Fund.
Gray is assisting Sharon to secure additional start-up funds to refurbish her storefront operation and develop marketing materials.
“Their funding comes in a couple of stages with a view to the long-term. In the future, we hope to secure additional funds for the purchase of new baking equipment, a delivery truck and maybe a website,” said Gray.
Sharon has a goal of making 1,000 baked goods per day at a nominal price of one dollar per unit, when her facilities are complete. Every day people stop her on the street to ask when her store will be opening.
“When that happens, I’ll be able to buy Christmas presents for all my family and send them back home too,” says Sharon.