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Local Economy

An Indigenous-Owned Café Franchise Expands Across BC

‘When I go to Kekuli, it feels like home. It just brings something back for me.’

Andrea Smith 18 Oct

Andrea D. Smith is a regular Tyee contributor. Reach her by email.

Indigenous-owned food franchise Kekuli Café is quickly expanding across the province.

First opened in Kelowna’s Westbank in 2009, the café found its way through COVID to open two new locations just this past year. Kekuli now has four locations in total, and requests to open other locations keep coming in.

“It’s like KFC and the secret spice,” joked Sharon Bond-Hogg, founder and owner of both Kelowna locations, about the reason Kekuli is so popular.

Staff don’t even know what’s in the flour base, added Bond-Hogg, whose husband, Darren Hogg, is her partner in the business. “We have a location where we do it. Secret location… secret spices.”

While the bannock’s base is mixed outside the shop, the bannock is made into dough and freshly baked and fried on-site at each location. That’s important to her, she said, so customers are getting top quality meals.

Four people stand in a kitchen. To the left, there is a prep area with a cold table full of bannock fixings. Directly behind the cold table, someone stirs a large metal mixing bowl full of bannock dough.
Sharon Bond-Hogg, front, in the kitchen of a Kekuli Café with employees. Photo courtesy of Sharon Bond-Hogg.

Bond-Hogg says she’s spent years talking to people, educating them, and dispelling myths about bannock in general. She’s heard criticism, for example, from people who say bannock is actually a Scottish treat, but she doesn’t agree with that — the Scottish variety requires the use of oats. And she also knows from her grandparents and ancestors that many different types of flours and ingredients, like ground corn, ground wheat and pemmican, were used over multiple generations — and all of these are variations of what is considered to be traditional bannock.

“There was one where they mixed bitterroot and berries, and that came out literally like a thick paste, almost like a floury mixture. And they had to eat it because it gave them their fat for the winter,” said Bond-Hogg. “It’s so different across Canada.”

Kekuli Café has seen its share of ups and downs over the years, including having to close for nearly two months after flooding in Merritt.

Bond-Hogg opened the Merritt location and ran it for 4 years before selling it to Elijah Mack in 2018. Her business still takes royalties from it, but she knew it wouldn’t be right to at the time of the floods.

“We just had compassion, and we cared,” Bond-Hogg said. “We want it to succeed, and we want him to succeed. So, we’re always thinking that way.”

Despite battling its own financial devastation, Merritt’s Kekuli still hosted their fifth annual dinner for the homeless last year, but expanded it to include anyone affected by the floods, too.

“I wasn’t going to do the Christmas dinner because of how much we were already struggling,” Mack wrote in an email to the Tyee. “But being an extraordinary year, I opened up my doors to the entire community to serve Christmas dinner and breakfast.”

“We took donations and gave it right back to those directly impacted by the flood damages. My family and I served over 250 plates on Christmas Day,” he added.

Mack also owns the Kamloops location that opened just this past June.

Seven employees stand behind a counter, flanked by display cases of bannock. They are all wearing orange shirts that read, “Every Child Matters.”
Employees pose for a photo at a Kekuli Café location. Photo courtesy of Sharon Bond-Hogg.

Before opening Kekuli, Bond-Hogg and her husband started out by selling bannock at a car wash concession booth. She laughs as she remembers the first time she left her husband alone with the bannock recipe — she had to go to her regular job as a First Nations support worker in a school — to cook for all the customers that would come through that day.

“I said, ‘Here’s the Bannock recipe. I gotta’ go to work. See ya.’ And he’s looking at me, going, ‘What the heck?’ He had no clue how to cook,” she said. “Oh my god, I remember those days. That’s hilarious.”

Bond-Hogg always used a cast iron frying pan for her bannock, which was hard to give up when she opened the full café, she said. She insisted to her husband they could cook all the bannock they needed in the little pan, despite the demand now being hundreds per day. She was thankful she held onto it, too, when the gas line went out just days into opening and they couldn't bake the bannock, even though it meant coming in as early as 3 or 4 in the morning to get the bannock done.

These days, they mainly bake the bannock. There’s generally 1 or 2 bannock makers on per shift, who mix the “ancient native secret magic bag,” as Bond-Hogg jokingly refers to it, with flour and water, then pop it in the oven.

“I still have the cast iron pan in my stores, because you just never know when something will happen and you need that cast iron pan,” she said.

The newest café, opened at Okanagan College in Kelowna, has a slightly different name than the others.

It’s called Kapi and Seplil, which is “coffee and bannock” in Bond-Hogg’s traditional language, Nłeʔkepmxcín, from her First Nation, the Nooaitch Indian Band, near Merritt. The team had to be creative in deciding on the menu, because the college crowd is so often in a rush, she said.

“We’ve got a whole espresso and smoothie bar set up, and all the coffees have some original flavours of Canada like maple, and we use saskatoon berry in a lot of our recipes for food and drinks. And we sell a lot of our fresh baked bannock there, and some of our cinnamon bits,” she said.

The kiosk, which offers grab-and-go options like yogurt cups and salads, also offers fresh baked bannock and the bannock sandwiches (bannock-wiches) found at other cafes. While the bannock isn’t baked there, it’s still freshly made at another location and delivered there.

The Kamloops, Merritt and Kelowna Westbank locations have much larger menus, including a long list of baked bannock and toppings, a variety of powwow frybread tipi tacos, and both breakfast and regular bannock-wiches, filling salads, smoothies, hot drinks and iced teas which offer saskatoon berry flavours, and maple, among others.

All the Kekuli locations sell Spirit Bear coffee, an Indigenous-owned organic and fair trade coffee company located in B.C.

Gina Taylor and William Sandy are two long-time supporters of the Kekuli brand. Sandy, who lives in Merritt, also frequently visits the cafes in Kelowna and Kamloops. Taylor makes it a point to visit the Merritt location whenever she’s in town.

“Having four kids growing up, my mom made bannock all the time, and I didn’t even think we were poor because it was so good,” said Taylor. “When you leave home and you don’t have bannock at your beck and call because you’re not with your mom anymore.... To me, when I go to Kekuli, it feels like home. It just brings something back for me.”

“The staff are really friendly and welcoming, and they support bringing back Indigenous cuisine, whether it’s with their drinks, or with their food,” Sandy said.

“The environment they set by playing Indigenous music, and using Indigenous art work,” he continued, “really opens the space for Indigenous people, and non-Indigenous people, to help revitalize our culture and our traditions.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Local Economy, Food

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