Stories that Inspire a Nation
Kekuli Cafe is Sharon Bond-Hogg’s recipe to become Canada’s first bannock baron
by Steven McCoy
March 8, 2023
Sharon Bond-Hogg has big plans to bring bannock – a traditional Indigenous bread — to the Canadian masses through her restaurant Kekuli Cafe. What started out as a small, roadside stand beside a car wash in 2004 has now grown into a franchisable business model with four locations across B.C. and plans for national expansion.
“I want share my restaurant across Canada,” exclaimed Sharon when talking about growth plans for Kekuli Cafe, “I want to see 150 to 200 restaurants open up.”
Bond, a member of the Nooaitch Indian Band, part of the Nlaka’pamux First Nations Government, knows that people are as diverse as the bannock recipes used by Indigenous cooks from across the country and Sharon hopes to make lasting connections between all people by breaking bannock together. But bannock is not the only thing being broken in Sharon’s cafes – stereotypes and barriers are also being torn apart as well.
“There are a lot of stereotypes people think about us (Indigenous people in business), like there’s lots of free money or either the band owns the place.” explained Sharon “It’s like, no, we had to get a loan, we had to work hard to pay it back, we own this.”
Sharon’s entrepreneurial spirit has been shining bright since she was a young kid. Her passion can be traced back to early childhood where Sharon’s father was a hard-working logger and her mother stayed home to look after five children. Since money was always tight, at the age of 10 and spurred by the desire to have her own money, Sharon teamed up with her friends, pooled together their pennies and nickels and headed down to the local corner store to buy a bunch of candies. They then repackaged those candies and setup up shop at the end of the road and sold those same candies to others in the neighbourhood.
“People would come and buy our candy,” chuckled Sharon, “That was the start of my entrepreneurial journey.”
As for Bond’s early memories of eating bannock, she recalled how her mother used to make bread and take pieces of dough to fry up and feed to her and her siblings for a quick snack when they were kids. Sharon was the oldest of five siblings and she fondly recalled the smells of her mom’s bread and home cooking wafting throughout the house, a time when her and all her family were all together.
But the carefree days of reselling candy to the neighborhood kids came to an end when, sadly, at the age of 12, Sharon’s mother passed away, which marked a turning point in her life. Sharon’s two sisters were sent to the USA to stay with their grandmother while Sharon found herself in a caretaking role, looking after her two younger brothers at home while her father continued to work to provide for the family.
Throughout her adolescent and young adulthood years, Bond developed a culinary passion and making her own bannock. Sharon soon fell in love with cooking and baking food so much she started to write business plans on different ideas, like a fondue café.
When Sharon began work at the school district, she utilized her passion for cooking and brought people together by sharing her bannock with the faculty, students and parents at various school functions. “It was a great way to bring everyone together in the school, it brought the students and parents together and it really helped share our culture by bringing people together in the same room.” Sharon continued work as First Nation Student Support Worker for 10 years until she decided to pursue her passion for cooking and opened her own business in 2004. As excited as she was for this new adventure, things did not come easy.
When Sharon and her husband started slinging bannock out the window of a roadside stand in West Kelowna, they faced a lot of rejection, particularly from banks who not only viewed restaurants as a risky investment but also labelled it an Indigenous business, which lenders also considered high-risk due to systematic barriers designed into the Indian Act, not to mention the bankers own discriminatory mindsets towards Indigenous people and women.
“Sometimes we’d make a dollar, sometimes we’d make $10.” Sharon recalled of those early days starting out. “I never really knew what it was like to be ‘entrepreneurial’ because that was not a word we commonly heard of back in the day. When I was doing all my research for my business plan, I did not know if I was doing it right. I had no mentors, no one to look up to help figure these things out.” she said.
Despite the lack of direction and resources, Bond utilized what was available to help deepen her understanding about business and entrepreneurship through reading, workshops and courses. Sharon eventually found some assistance through the Aboriginal Business Program (ABC) with a consultant to assist with designing a business plan that Sharon continued to work on with the ambition to open a more permanent, sit-down type of restaurant. Her pursuits of capital funding however still eluded her.
“It took a lot of rejection but I just never gave up. So many people rejected my ideas and they didn’t have any faith.” Sharon recalled of those early days of trying to find support and equity to grow her dreams of becoming a bannock baron.
As her ideas grew over those years, so did the small town of Westbank. As more and more real estate development occurred around her small bannock stand, business really began to pick up for her and her husband.
“All of a sudden these buildings started popping up everywhere and we’re still slinging bannock out the window.” Bond said. With banks still unwilling to lend her money for expansion, she ended up using an Aboriginal Financial Institution (AFI) to secure her first loan and started building a sit-down restaurant which opened its doors in 2009.
Enter, Kekuli Cafe, where the slogan is “Don’t panic – we have bannock!”, a tribute to Sharon’s Indigenous roots and unwavering dedication to pursue her passions in life no matter the struggles faced along the way. From those early years of repackaging candy, to bringing people together with bannock, to refining her business plan, all paid off with a well-designed and recognizable brand when she finally opened the doors to her new restaurant.
“Many people thought we were a franchise already when we first opened.” That kind of feedback speaks to the strength of Kekuli’s brand recognition and the prep work put into the business plan. The word ‘Kekuli’ itself is a word from the Thompson language that literally means “house”, a word Sharon came across when reading a book by James Teit.
Sharon’s strong sense of social responsibility is also evident in all aspects of the Kekuli Cafe business model, from the employees to the suppliers, to corporate partnerships, the strong ties to community and family are apparent.
Two young Indigenous people who started work alongside Sharon at young ages have now become the next wave of Kekuli franchisees who are giving back to the community in their own way such as providing meals to people on Christmas day and donating food to local shelters.
Bond, in her entrepreneurial pursuits, has unknowingly blazed a path not travelled by many other Indigenous women in the business world. To further her understanding of the franchising world, Sharon recently took a course "Franchising as a Path to Economic Development" offered by Steven Vanloffeld, owner of E-Supply Canada, where she was surprised to learn Kekuli was one of the few Indigenous franchisors in the country.
Sharon takes calls daily from people across the country who want to open the next Kekuli restaurant and she is excited to see where the path brings her and the Kekuli family next. “We’re making this statement in the community. This is an Indigenous business. We are here. We will remain. We don’t give up. We keep growing and learning.”
Learn more by visiting Kekuli Cafe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven McCoy is an Ojibwe from Garden River First Nation in Northern Ontario and life-long resident of Sault Ste. Marie in the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850 territory. He is the founder of Indigenbiz where he publishes his journalistic work highlighting Indigenous people in business. He is also a successful businessman who specializes in communications, marketing, public relations and Indigenous liaison through another company he founded called Gencity Consulting. In addition, Steven is a skilled public and motivational speaker with a unique ability to capture the audience's attention through descriptive story telling and draws upon his life experiences growing up off-reserve while overcoming poverty, abandonment and racism to achieve success.