Ramdas West Indian Food
As the owner of one of a handful of West Indian stores in Montreal, you’d think that Mr. Raymond Ramdas would be troubled by the proliferation of products from the Caribbean on the shelves of every major grocery chain these days.
“Not at all,” he told The CONTACT during a little walk-around at his store. “You see, what it means is that we in the Caribbean community are finally being accepted as part of the society and our food has become more familiar to other Montrealers.”
Ramdas might be the man most responsible for that.
This year marks 43 years since he opened what many consider to be the first store carrying a full stock of Caribbean and West Indian food and supplies in Montreal.
The store was a tiny outlet situated in the Atwater Market, jammed packed with a grand variety of ground vegetables, (affectionately referred to as ‘provisions’ by the West Indians) such as yams, sweet potatoes, eddoes and what turned out to be the most highly favored among customers, dasheen.
“Dasheen was definitely one of my biggest sellers,” he says. But he was unable to offer an explanation why the mostly tasteless, bulky and starchy vegetable was so popular among West Indians, except that it may have provoked nostalgia.
Those days, the thing that Trinidad and Tobago people call “blue food” was rolling off the shelves at .49 cents a pound, and today, at close to $4 a pound, they are still running it down.
Dasheen aside, Ramdas says there were lots of other reasons why the little store bustled, especially on the weekends, when he first opened his doors back in 1973.
“I think it was a place where the community really started to get together,” he says. “People were meeting friends they hadn’t seen in a long time, others were making acquaintances with people from different Caribbean islands.”
Looking back over the many years of joy and challenges and ups and downs in the business, the one thing that remained constant for Ramdas, his wife Savitri and children Emily and Brandon is being part of a community.
He borders on emotional when talking about a communal atmosphere that felt more like a family.
Emily, who was born not too long after the first store opened and spent much of her formative years helping her parents, described the feeling as the “Trini warmth”, where clients evolved into becoming “auntie or uncle so and so.”
“I think one of our most solid relationships was the one we shared with Union United Church, where me and my brother were christened,” she says. “I’m so proud when I hear about the proud history of that church in Canada. It’s an institution that will always hold dear in my heart.”
Ramdas says when he migrated to Montreal in 1970, there wasn’t much thought of going into business.
But while working at a small souvenir shop, he was meeting people from various Caribbean islands and conversations usually landed on food and the lamentations of not having access to their ‘vital supplies’ from back home. Many cajoled him to open a store. And although he didn’t have the financial means to do so, he too saw the need.
When he decided to give it a go, it became a family project, with support coming from his sister Sybil, brothers Norman, Robbie and Rampersad and his new wife Savi.
He remembers meeting with iconic Montreal mayor, Jean Drapeau who offered him the location at an attractive $78 per month rent.
(At the time, Atwater Market was still an emerging sector. Over the years, his rent rose incrementally and by the time he left, it was $3,000.)
Ramdas says he will be forever indebted to another community entrepreneur, the late Mr. Spicee the legendary maker and distributor of Jamaican patties in Montreal, for getting him started.
“He took me in his vehicle to Toronto and around Montreal to get supplies and he taught me all I needed to know to get started.”
It didn’t take long for him to get stocked and push open the doors of the store. Through word-of-mouth, people came.
It wasn’t long before the business started to strive.
By the end of the first year, Ramdas started looking for a location for another store, and decided on LaSalle, where there was an emerging West Indian community.
He remembers meeting up with Clive Sawyers, a Jamaican Montrealer, who took it upon himself to drive him all around the area trying to find the right place. They
ended up right where they began and the current location of the store.
He opened the LaSalle location the year after Atwater in 1974.
Almost four-and-a-half decades later, Ramdas speaks proudly of having a window seat watching the emergence of the Black and Caribbean community. He doesn’t much like what he sees when it comes to our development and progress.
“We could have done a lot more,” he says. “We could have come together more as a community and own more, we have been here too long to have so little and up to today, we’re still too disconnected.”
To underline what he is saying, he points to the fact that although there are many other stores selling Caribbean and West Indian food and products in and around Montreal, only two are actually owned by people from the region. The other person is Tim Sobers, owner of Marche Colonade in the West Island.
Still, Ramdas harbors a lot of happy memories that come with being the storeowner of the community for so long.
“I remember people coming in, especially during the Christmas holidays, just to hear the Caribbean songs and experience a little of the Caribbean atmosphere in the store.”
These days, some of the bustle at the store is gone and Mr. Ramdas has had more than his fair share of health issues over the recent past.
However, he is still positive and able to put the new reality into perspective.
“We have a generation that has gotten older, while many have left Montreal. The younger ones have become more Canadianized and are eating differently, but the truth is we still have a lot of loyal support from the community, and that for us is a blessing.”
So it seemed fitting to look to the children, Brandon and Emily, for a perspective on the future.
“I have spent almost my whole life in the stores and I enjoyed almost every minute of it,” says 37-year-old Brandon. “As long as my parents are in here I will be with them, supporting them. I can’t say much more.”
Same sentiments for Emily who says for her and Brandon, there wasn’t much of a difference between home life and store life.
We have learnt so much from being in the store and we have gotten so much love from our community that whatever the future holds it’s all (flavored) by a beautiful past.
As entrepreneurs we’d love to say that, but that’s not possible, so we’ll just wait and see what the future holds.
See them at Ramdas West Indian Food Ltd – 1503 Av Dollard, LaSalle. 514-364-3817.