On meeting Charlotte and Castro Boateng, their care and sense of humour come across immediately — living proof of why their community holds the couple, and their expanding business, in such high esteem.
“We weren’t really looking to expand,” says Castro Boateng, speaking of the newly opened HOB Fine Foods across the street from their restaurant, House of Boateng. “It came down to COVID.”
Lockdowns and restaurant closures saw the pair adapt by expanding their take-and-bake [takeaway] offer. Knowing their customers missed more than just their food, the couple got creative, offering themed three-course meals that could be enjoyed at home in PJs.
The way we thought of the business in the beginning,
we didn’t give ourselves enough chances to grow —
there’s more opportunity [than we realized]. — Castro Boateng
“The restaurant has been open for three and a half years — look at all the changes that we have had to make to survive,” says Castro. “We have only really been operating for a year and a half with normal recipes and reports.”
When House of Boateng reopened, the kitchen had to return its focus to serving the restaurant, and lost its capacity to do much else. The couple wanted to continue the take-and-bake meals, while anticipating the return of larger-scale events would increase demand for catering. They also wanted to bring back the group dining experiences and add cooking classes into the mix.
“Through all this we’ve always kept on juggling,” says Charlotte. “We continued to evolve and change things.”
You say you didn’t plan for a lot of things, but decisions have snuck up on you. How was this the case for this new space?
Castro: We walked in here, we looked around and it needed love. We’ve always looked beyond esthetics. It’s right downtown; it’s very close to our location. That was one of the big factors. A lot of times, you have chefs or companies open up two businesses. But, you can’t be in two places at once. I can just walk over there and help, and vice versa. We didn’t have to displace any of our staff. I think this was a location that was almost calling us to take it over.
Charlotte: It’s not another restaurant; it’s an extension of what we do. We can still do the catering, we can still offer the long table dinners, we can still sell our products and we can still have our restaurant.
Why did you start offering takeaway meals?
Castro: When you work all day, and then you get home, you’ve got kids, you’ve got practice and you’ve got lessons — not everybody has time to cook at 7:30 at night. We realized there is a market for that — for people that are busy but still want to eat healthy.
When you look at the demographic of Langford, it’s mostly families. These are people who are like us, busy. Even the ones that are not busy, like the elderly, don’t want to cook seven days a week.
You seem deeply ingrained in the community here. How important is that relationship?
Charlotte: We’ve always gotten the support from people here. And the pandemic was a game changer. People went out of their way to come in. We’d have customers that sat outside in the pouring rain saying, “We just want to see you guys succeed.”
Castro: They saw the service that we are trying to provide and they really wanted it. It’s something that they don’t have to travel to Victoria or go to Vancouver for — it’s in their own neighbourhood. So, they’re going to do whatever they can to help us succeed.
Charlotte: There’s a lot of people that don’t know what the ingredients are. They might be far out of their comfort zone, like with stinging nettle hollandaise sauce. But we cater to everyone. We have a really wide range of diverse customers. With the Black Lives Matter movement, we got loads of support. We saw a lot of young people looking for businesses to support.
Castro: We live in a community where people understand change, and they want to be a part of that change. Even small things, like when the mask [rules] came into effect. People came in with their masks and passports ready. The Island is different — there’s a different feeling of understanding and moving forward.
What is unique about your menu and approach to making food accessible?
Castro: We learnt so much before we opened that restaurant [House of Boateng]. For me, as a chef, I started looking at food differently. I’m not a plant-based person. We went to Portland to do a research trip for the restaurant. Halfway through, Charlotte said to me, “Did you notice most of the restaurants that we’ve been to have been vegetarian based?” And I had no idea.
We started thinking: How do we make our foods more accessible? We realized we needed to think backwards. When a chef makes a dish, they look at the highlight of the dish. For example, I might want to make a steak dish, so I start with a certain cut and age of steak and the vegetables are usually last.
So, we started building as a vegetarian-based dish, and then we can add a protein on top. It made it easy for us to build the menu for the restaurant. We looked at all our recipes and started tweaking them. For example, pesto doesn’t need nuts all the time or dairy. How do we do that?
Is accessibility important to you? And how does that translate into food?
Castro: We want a place that includes everything. Anybody can come in here [all diets]. We have a wide range of prices. The key to that is us, as staff. It doesn’t matter what the person is spending. If they walk into our home, it’s our job to make sure that they have the best time.
If somebody comes to the restaurant, and all they have is a coffee and a doughnut, make it the best coffee and a doughnut because this could be the most important part of their day.
I think that’s why the restaurant is successful, because of the understanding of people — and the food is good.
Your team chose to share tips evenly rather than be paid a higher wage. How does that impact culture?
Charlotte: They chose the potential to make tips. Half go to the front; half go to the kitchen, and it’s divided on the hours that you work. It doesn’t matter if you’re the dishwasher or the head chef.
Castro: We have a 16-year-old dishwasher making the same tips as the head chef. He [the chef] can turn around and say, “listen, I need you to do this.” You know you’re accountable. When you treat your people well, then you can ask them to do more.
They also said that [as a result] teamwork is better. Everybody knows we’re all in this together. I always bring it up — this is the system that we all created. If you’re not happy with it, you can change it.
Are people surprised that you are expanding in a pandemic?
Castro: I believe our job in this community is really to help it thrive when it comes to culinary. The City of Langford has provided us so much. Now, how do we make it even more accessible for more people?
It’s not just us — we could have opened up a second restaurant. But this is something that customers want. Not everybody’s vaccinated and we understand that, and that’s why we do other things for them to be able to take away food. People might not want to go into the restaurant. They can order online, and we can meet them in their car and give it to them. We think, “How are we able to make their lives a little easier?”
Charlotte: We would never, ever have thought to do this if the community hadn’t given us that feedback. We’re lucky in business because we’ve been very open to the customer, and the customer has been very open to us. We never look at it as criticism. It’s positive feedback — people want to be a part of it.
How is it working together?
Castro: We’ve worked together long enough to know each other’s strengths. We try to make all the decisions together. We also let our staff know that, if there’s certain things that they might not want to talk to me about, you have Charlotte. And vice versa. I think we’re building something special. And we’re looking for people who want to help this thing grow.
The situation with staffing right now — I disagree with what a lot of people are doing. You want to hire people that want to be there — not because of money — they want to genuinely be there. Then you’re able to always provide for them, to help them succeed.
You’re both obviously very hands on. Is it important to you to be so involved?
Charlotte: I love talking to people, meeting people and serving in the restaurant. I hate office days; it’s lonely and quiet and boring.
Castro: The food service is about meeting people and building a sense of community. People want to know about the food and the ingredients. We used to entertain quite a lot [in our home] before we had the restaurant. But now we get to do it here.
What values are important to your business?
Castro: Being sustainable. I think sustainable isn’t just about the food; sustainable is about the business. The business needs to be able to survive. Your business needs to be able to employ people in the community so that people can live in the community to support other things.
I wouldn’t call this a passion project, this is a lifestyle — it really is.
Charlotte: We always check in [with staff] and make sure they tell us if they need to book a holiday. We always close in January. So it’s a really good opportunity for everybody to do something and go somewhere and take a break from each other.
Castro: We’re building something for the long term. We want something that’s going to last and that’s going to continue to service the community. When it comes to culinary experiences, it’s really underserved. When people walk in some days it’s like “Wow, this is fantastic.” It’s just nice to know we’re doing something that people can find useful.