Understanding Toronto’s complex histories requires more than just answering who, what, when, where and why. Living in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, many Torontonians are likely to identify more with the stories that got them here, with those who journeyed from home in search of a better life. With that in mind, few cities on earth can do justice to the story of Peter Spyros Goudas, the Greek immigrant who brought the flavours of the world to Toronto. Goudas went from being the owner of a Kensington Market store to running multiple nightclubs, hosting a radio show, writing dozens of promotional books and becoming an unlikely icon within Toronto’s West Indian/Caribbean communities. Given his creative energy and his willingness to break cultural barriers, Goudas helped define Toronto’s unique, international culture for decades to come.
But our story does not begin in Toronto. Rather, it begins in the small village of Kalamaki Beach near Athens in Greece. Goudas started out in a small factory making clay plates for little money, but from an early age, both industry and community leaders recognized him as an energetic force working well beyond the expectations of his age. At 16, he was appointed general manager of a construction company after finding a new way to ensure the safety of local balconies. Following a brief stint as an aircraft mechanic in the armed forces, Goudas encountered a major crossroads that would change his life for good. On April 21st, 1967, several members of the Greek army sought to establish a permanent military junta and took control of the country. The military coup targeted politicians, intellectuals and people sympathetic to the political left in Greece.
He even DJ’d for clubgoers who, for purposes of market research, received free meals containing ingredients from his store.
Seeing the forest through the trees, Goudas felt that his ambitions—and possibly his freedom—were threatened, so he used his credentials as an aircraft engineer to emigrate to Canada via Halifax, a traditional entry point for European immigrants. He rode on an Italian vessel called the Christopher Columbo.
Goudas claims he only began his Canadian life with $100 in his pocket and had to work three jobs around the Greater Toronto Area to make ends meet. In 1969, he finally saved up enough money to start his own business and open his first store in Kensington Market. Though originally a Greek grocery store, Goudas noticed something different about Kensington. Unlike stores in, say, Chinatown or Little Portugal, many Kensington shops appealed to a variety immigrants and locals, regardless of their ethnicity. Once a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, Kensington Market eventually included food choices from around the world, from Eastern European delis to Mexican taquerias to Chinese restaurants.
When Goudas arrived in Toronto, the city had a reputation for being relatively conservative in terms of cuisine and culture. At the time, “Toronto the Good” considered Italian and Greek cuisine as ethnic food staples. So when he sold foods from around the world, including 20 varieties of rice shipped from multiple continents, including Indian basmati rice, Thai scented rice and parboiled rice from Arkansas, he faced an uphill battle.
This inspired Goudas to diversify his food selection and offer foods to accommodate Toronto’s growing multicultural population. By introducing these new culinary possibilities, Goudas helped expand Toronto’s appetite for ethnic and international food. Today, Kensington Market boasts several eateries featuring eclectic combinations, such as “Hungary Thai” (Hungary & Thailand), Rasta Pasta (Jamaica & Italy), as well as the Pow Wow Café (serving Ojibwe-inspired tacos).
Throwing himself into a world far removed from life in Kalamaki Beach, Goudas needed to prove to his customers that his product selection was not only acceptable but superior to his competitors. In doing so, Goudas transformed himself into a minor but mighty cultural icon who boasted a series of books, memorable radio ads and tv spots. His literature, such as The Ackee Book, The Mango Tree and The Cow Foot Story, feature spirited tributes to his products. The excerpt below, from Goudas’ Curry Powder book The Curry Story, showcases his obsession with perfecting his recipes:
“At least in engineering, the plane would fly one way or another, but if I failed in this curry-making task, the product would never fly which was a danger to my reputation. To win the 6/49 Lottery today, the correct combinations are endless but attainable. To make a curry powder under these conditions, aiming to please everyone is nearly impossible. This is due to the facts that 1) Jamaicans used more thyme in their curry powder 2) Trinidadians and Guyanese used more cumin and chili and 3) Chinese use more turmeric. For the next six months, I was having curry for breakfast, curry for lunch, curry for dinner, and dreams of goats jumping with Curry Powder packages tied around their necks instead of bells.”
While few Canadians at the time had even heard of the majority of these food items, Goudas took big risks to establish himself as a merchant willing to sell what large grocery chains simply wouldn’t. He became known for importing fruits and vegetables unfamiliar to mainstream Canadian markets. Instead of seasonal peaches, gourds and blueberries grown in Ontario, Goudas experimented with selling yellow yams, Negro yam, chocho, dasheen, dasheen bush, bodi peas, eddoes, cassava and green bananas. He also introduced a series of exotic fruits to the Kensington shop, including mango, papaya, guava, star fruit, jackfruit, gineps, star apple, breadfruit, and green coconuts.
While Goudas turned heads by introducing exotic foods to the Canadian market, his ambitions went far beyond his Kensington storefront. As a one-man marketing machine, Goudas understood that growing his business required more than conventional advertising. Knowing that Toronto’s West Indian population would continue to grow for years to come, he worked hard to build the very community that would become his main client base. Only a year after purchasing his store, Goudas decided to expand into the nightclub business by acquiring the adjacent Zambezi Club and renaming it the 813 Club. As international in scope as his store, Goudas introduced the city to the sounds of reggae and ska music when mainstream acts like Bob Marley had just begun to make waves in the music industry. He even DJ’d for clubgoers who, for purposes of market research, received free meals containing ingredients from his store. Goudas’ then took to the airwaves with his Caribbean Show, featured on CHIN radio, played world music before such a term had ever reached mainstream audiences. His radio show helped him promote his business and advertise his various foods to his audience. The most famous ad he released was a song about Goudas Rice, apparently recorded by a number of young children playing guitars and steel pans.
In addition to his nightclub, his radio show, his custom-designed products and his autobiographical books, Goudas devoted hours of his own time to Toronto’s annual Caribana festival. With a handful of colleagues and approximately 200 helpers, Goudas went all-in on designing costumes and promoting the festival to both the Caribbean community and those unfamiliar with the festival. In One Caribana Story, another one of Goudas’ books, he claims that he wanted to help put on “the greatest event the Canadian people and the multicultural generation had ever seen”. In 1973 alone, he supplied the festival with 50,000 free samples of his signature rice.
Nearly a decade after his arrival in Toronto, an end to the junta in Greece meant that he could return back home without fearing for his safety and economic well-being. By that time, however, Goudas had found his calling in Toronto. Through his entrepreneurial work, he discovered a way of life that sounded, well, utopian. For the success of his business relied not on the race nor the beliefs nor the politics of his customers. Its success relied on taste and food preferences.
Today, the Mr.Goudas’ brand continues to bring a panoply of global flavours to the global city that helped it grow. While the original Kensington store is gone, hundreds of Goudas products line the shelves of grocery stores across the country, including several major grocery chains. And while the city he caters to is vastly different from the one he arrived in, Goudas is an inspiring example of Toronto’s rare ability to use food as an entry point into some of Toronto’s diverse cultures.
Christopher Grafos, Ph.D. is a Research Associate for the Department of History at York University and is Co-Founder/Co-Director of the Greek Canadian History Project | Πρόγραμμα Eρευνας Ελληνο-Καναδικής Ιστορίας