For many Canadians, the pandemic permanently shifted how we view the world and our place in it. For entrepreneur, foodie and home chef Rebecca Pereira (who goes by Becca, for short), the experience has also narrowed her focus on the things that matter most: namely family and passion projects. As it turns out, the combination of these two priorities gave birth to Pereira’s dream child: Toronto-based Spice Girl Eats — a creative pop-up restaurant that serves up delicious authentic Indian cuisine.
“I realized people love [this food] so much. We use really good quality ingredients — we don’t reuse oils and all of it is super fresh,” Pereira explains.
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Starting a family business: from modeling career to chef
While Pereira has always fancied herself a foodie, the former model also stems from a long line of talented female cooks on her mother’s side. In fact, although her mom was once a professional chef in her own right, and her grandma was famous in her neighbourhood for her culinary creations, it was her great-grandma who inadvertently kickstarted Pereira’s own journey several lifetimes ago and a continent away. The family matriarch preserved her invaluable culinary knowledge by penning a treasured family heirloom that has since only grown with each generation: it’s a handwritten cookbook which today serves as Pereira’s roadmap, offering a solid foundation on which to build her business and her dreams.
“It’s a piece of art,” Pereira says. “It’s literally so worn down and tattered — the pages are falling out. There are little notes in it, and doodles and glued-on newspaper recipes. And it’s actually really beautiful.”
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Hiring family members: the genesis of Spice Girl Eats
Just before the pandemic hit, Pereira held down several part-time jobs in addition to her modeling to help cover living expenses. She was also contemplating a career pivot and applying to culinary school. “I really wasn’t happy and I wanted to have a career and I just felt like my time [in the modeling industry] was done,” she says. “During this time I had the feeling that I wanted to cook.”
However, having had her own varied experiences in the culinary world, her mom’s enthusiasm for Pereira’s new path was a bit more tempered. “[As a chef] she just knows how much work it is and [she also knows] the industry itself,” Pereira says. “Like, it’s all males.”
Ultimately, her mom, along with the rest of her family, came around and offered their full-fledged support.
I just feel really close to my ancestors because when we’re cooking their recipes, my mom will tell stories of them and the food that we’re cooking.
One of the benefits of working together as a family is that you’ve got a ready-made team. “It’s definitely a family operation,” she explains. Each member plays a role: her mom offers guidance and experience with Pereira’s recipes, her older sister — a baker in her own right — developed Spice Girl Eats’ top-selling sourdough naan, and while one brother found time to deliver meals in addition to his own full-time job, the other is helping Pereira in other ways. “They’re just always so willing to help me, and that has been the reason that I’ve gotten this far,” she says, humbly.
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The inspiration for starting up a family business
With the 2020 global lockdowns as the catalyst, Pereira withdrew indoors and spent long days doing what many others did: cooking some of her comfort favourites with family via video calls. “I felt really good doing it. I loved it and it sort of clicked… my mom would FaceTime us, and [my siblings and I would together] work on recipes she sent us from my great-grandmother’s cookbook and we would all cook together. It was just amazing.”
The process had brought about an awakening for Pereira of her Goan-Indian heritage and her identity: The Mississauga, Ont.-born Barrie-raised Pereira hadn’t felt a strong sense of connection to her culture until this point. “[Before Spice Girl Eats] I didn’t know what it was to be Indian and Canadian. With these recipes, I’m learning more and more about India, and I can’t wait to go back knowing all this,” she says. “I just feel really close to my ancestors because when we’re cooking their recipes, my mom will tell stories of them and the food that we’re cooking.”
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While Pereira noticed that the pandemic gave rise to many creative food pop-ups all over the city, she recognized a gap in the space for this kind of authentic Indian cuisine. Soon after, she quit her part-time job, applied and rented a commercial kitchen space and launched Spice Girl Eats.
With her mother’s guidance and the rest of her family by her side, Pereira settled on a pre-order takeout menu, chose her recipes, and got to cooking, selling out each week since the pop-up’s inception in October 2020.
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What success looks like for the entrepreneur
Looking back, it’s clear to Pereira how much she’s grown as a cook, and that she’s learned more by working alongside her mother than she would have in any culinary school. “When I started, I was making butter chicken and I could only make 10 portions at a time, and now I can make 60 portions at a time without even thinking twice about it,” she points out.
I think the biggest blessing [has been] how much time we’ve gotten to spend together.
Part of the learning journey is also enjoying the process. “I love eating. It’s honestly my favourite thing,” she says, pointing out that it’s the communal aspect of cooking and sharing a meal that keeps her motivated. “The best part about being able to do this pop-up is still learning every day.”
The experience also had another welcome side effect: “At the start of the pandemic, [my family] just wasn’t seeing each other a lot and we’re pretty close. I think the biggest blessing [has been] how much time we’ve gotten to spend together,” Pereira adds.
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The challenges of running a family-owned business
Starting up a family business isn’t always smooth sailing, Pereira reveals. “The business has definitely brought us even closer – sometimes too close,” she jokes. Noting some of the challenges she’s had to face and grow from while working with family, Pereira says, “[my mom] has all the experience, yet I like to control the situation. We would just disagree with things, but honestly she’s always right. That’s the one thing I’ve learned,” adding, “we definitely bicker all the time, but that’s OK because five minutes after, we are hugging like nothing happened.”
She notes that having to work through any work-related challenges also has an upside when your mother and siblings are also your coworkers. “You don’t really have a choice. You can’t not talk to them.”
Pereira has also had to grow as a leader. “I can’t be reactive, so definitely learning that everyone has a different way of thinking and working and communicating — that’s something I never had to take into account before. So that’s definitely a huge lesson I’ve learned and I’m still obviously working on that every day… to kind of let people do the tasks rather than trying to do them all.”
Trust plays a huge factor in that process too: “Ultimately, I trust my family and I trust their skills as well. We’re a good team at the end of the day.”
What’s next for Spice Girl Eats
With much of Ontario re-opening and in-person dining resuming, Pereira knew a shift from the take-out model to indoor dining was coming eventually, and she’s preparing for what’s next: her complimentary freshly-prepped chai became a hit during the pop-up and now she’s perfecting the recipe to sell it as traditional chai concentrate anyone can make at home. “I decided that I wanted to kind of get more into the product world… for easy preparation at home.” The chai is now available for order on the Spice Girl Eats website.
The sweet elixir includes freshly-ground cardamom, clove, peppercorn, cinnamon and ginger, and it’s taken Pereira a year to perfect. How does she know she’s there? “I’m telling you this chai is what you would get in India, quote unquote. My mom said that so you know it’s actually really good. I’m really excited about it.”
As for whether she’s finally ready to add her own chapter to her family’s treasured cookbook, Pereira has another idea: “I think it would be amazing if we can actually [publish] the cookbook, and include [my] recipes as well as my mom’s recipes.”
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