We are frequently in the neighborhood and heard of New Bilan Restaurant through a friend. We went there and really loved Hussein and Chef Bari's food (Goat Meat Curry and Lentil Soup). Hussein graciously sat down for a chat with us.
Sadi: I just want to start by asking you how the business is going, how’s business these days?
Hussein: Business is…so far so good.
S: Is it busier now, or in the summer?
H: Well it used to be very busy here, but not these days, not so busy. And summertime it’s busy, when it’s winter it’s a little bit slow.
S: When’s rush hour usually? Do you guys have a rush hour?
H: Rush hour we have like…lunch time. Sometimes in the evening.
S: How long have you been here? How long have you guys had this restaurant?
H: This business I’ve been running since 2001.
S: Wow, so almost fifteen years. Same spot?
H: Same spot, yeah.
Andrew: You used to have an internet café right?
H: Yes that’s right, one side was a cyber café, and the other side was dining.
S: Okay, so in 2001, why did you decide to open a restaurant?
H: Well in the beginning, I used to work at Canada’s Wonderland, Food Court.
A: I used to work at Canada’s Wonderland!
H: Yes, then I decided to open my own business. Because I saw that I could handle it, the food and everything. And also, I saw in the downtown there’s a lot of multicultural people, and they’re interested in the ethnic food. So I have a lot of Africans, a lot of Asians. They all love my food. My food is like a mix-up, of the African and the Asian. Because we kind of have similarities to the South Asian food.
S: Okay, so why not French fries and burgers? Why this kind of food?
H: Well I’m not that type of people, who enjoy the French fries and that stuff. I wanted to give the people solid food, and it’s like cultural food.
S: So for you, why did you decide restaurant business, food business, instead of another kind of business?
H: Well I mentioned to you earlier that in Canada, it’s very multicultural. And even the Canadian people they love to have ethnic food. And I’m from East Africa, Somalia, so I like to give and show our cultural food to others.
S: So is there anything you want people to know about your restaurant? Let’s say somebody comes to Toronto from Winnipeg and Vancouver and they come here for one day, what do you want them to know about your restaurant?
H: I would love for them to come and to taste my food. I see a lot of overseas people that come, from across the hotel, and also they’re behind the hotel, actually I have a customer who works there, who sends people to me and he says ‘Okay this food is good you should go eat there’.
S: What’s the most popular dish here?
H: We have the rice, chapatti, and we have meat sides like king fish, goat, chicken stew, chicken steak.
S: Which one gets ordered the most?
H: Chicken stew. People love it.
S: Which one is your favorite?
H: Chicken steak.
S: Why do you think the chicken stew is so popular?
H: Well it has a combination of spices inside it, a good mix.
A: What’s the meaning behind the name of the restaurant?
H: Bilan is like…the beautiful girl in our language. It’s a beautiful girl’s name.
S: Oh so is Bilan someone in your life?
H: It’s a person’s name. It’s a girl, like in our country we call a gorgeous girl ‘Bilan’.
S: So if you’re not here, where’s your favorite place to eat. Where do you like to eat?
H: Well I like my neighborhood business. Poutine, Papa Johns. I have a son, he’s young, and he likes to eat many different foods. So then I have to go with him.
S: So you’re in the neighborhood then?
H: Yeah I’m right here.
S: Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Toronto? I know you live here, but why not Montreal or Vancouver, do you ever think about franchising or opening up one somewhere else?
H: Well to be honest with you, I’ve been here for the last 27 years. I’ve lived in Canada for the last 27 years. I’ve never moved to the west end of Toronto, I’ve always lived downtown. To move, you have to adapt to another city, another people. So I have a lot of Friends here, then I’d like to stay in Toronto.
A: Since you were talking about how Toronto’s so multicultural, this is your home. It seems like you really love this city. What is it about this city that you love so much?
H: Well I love Toronto, it’s like, a lot of friendly people. I’ve seen, in the last 27 years, different cultures coming, new people coming. We have like…close to my area is a church, the people when they come from immigration they go there. Then they come, they’re African and they say ‘Oh you have African food?’ Then they eat. And now, they finish school they go to their job but they know my food!
S: Do you ever read reviews on the internet of the restaurant?
H: No, I don’t have the time, and I also don’t have computer.
S: Do people ever come here and have a very negative experience and say something horrible?
H: No, never. Actually behind you, you can see a group from the States, that gave me feedback, drew pictures, and wrote me a letter.
S: Do people ever come in here and say something very positive? Do you have a favorite customer?
H: Some of them, they work in the neighborhood so they always come in here, for lunch-time or dinner.
S: Has business always been good? Was there ever a tough time, a few years ago, or a time when you thought the business would have to close?
H: Business means patience. You have to be patient. If you have patience, you will succeed.
A: When did you have to be very patient? Was there a time that really tested your patience?
H: Sometimes yeah I have a tough time. You see the street (Dundas St E) right here right? My customers they park here. And next door across the road there’s a Pizza Hut there. And ticket guy comes, he crosses the road and parks his car there, and he tags my customers. Then he drove away without bothering the Pizza Hut. That’s when I thought about moving somewhere else. It hurt my business.
S: Did you move?
H: No, I’m here. But that’s why I sometimes think about it. That’s like an injustice. When he let go of the big corporate businesses and the small businesses he punished. So I didn’t like it.
S: Could you do anything at the time? How did you feel?
H: I felt…like it was unfair.
S: What’s your favorite part of the job? What do you enjoy the most?
H: Me? I love to do everything. Dishes, cleaning, cutting, preparing, cooking. (Laughs.) That’s what I do sometimes when I’m alone you know? A restaurant is a very, very tough job. Because, the cook cannot sometimes call in sick like a waiter can call in sick. So you have to be ready to cover everything.
A: So when you’re not thinking about the restaurant, or eating or cooking, what do you like to do for fun? I heard from Bari (Chef) here that you used to run in the Olympics?
H: Oh you know, a couple weeks ago I was at the Toronto Marathon.
S: Oh you ran in that?
H: No I didn’t run but my coach called me and said ‘Come we need an inspector.’ So I was standing at Yonge and Wellington, watching the games. It was beautiful. It’s my favorite thing. If I’m not doing anything I like doing sports, like Track and Field, Soccer, or do some fitness. So I take my son we play outside sometimes.
S: How old is your son?
H: He’s eleven.
S: If someone was going to open a restaurant, and you had to give them one piece of advice, what would you tell them?
H: Well my advice is clear. If you’re going to buy a cow, you have to know how to milk.
S: Please explain.
H: You know the cows, you have to milk two times in a day. Six in the morning, six in the evening. You bring the cow home, and it’s ready to be milked and you don’t know how to milk, what are you going to do? It’s similar, and restaurants are the same like that.
A: When you were starting out your business, what was a piece of advice that you remember hearing that stuck with you?
H: Yeah, some of my old friends, they told me you know ‘Well for a restaurant you need a lot of time to put in, the attention to keep the customers happy.’
S: Okay. I think that’s more or less everything.
H: Thank you so much.
S: We really appreciate it. Thank you so much!
New Bilan Restaurant
183 Dundas St E