Feature – Immigrant Small Business Owners in Ottawa Creating Jobs, Providing Services, and Strengthening the Local Economy
CLAUDIA ARIZMENDI’S devoted customers flock to her Cupcake Lounge bakeries in the ByWard Market and in Westboro Village to peruse 14 flavours of her signature cupcakes available daily, as well as various cakes, pies and other treats.
Baking has always come naturally to the 51-year old native of Nueva Rosita, Mexico, who, along with many other immigrants to Canada, is pursuing her passion as a small business owner and helping to grow the National Capital Region’s economy.
Arizmendi began her career as a kindergarten teacher in Monterrey, while also operating a small cake baking business. In 1992, she travelled to Ottawa to take a threemonth ESL course, and fell in love with the city. She returned in 1994, married a Canadian and started a family.
“I stayed home for a while to raise my children. When I was at home, I decided to start making cupcakes in the shape of flowers. At first I had a small business baking cakes for friends and family. When it got bigger and bigger, I decided to go back to school, and did the bakery and pastry art program at Algonquin College. I graduated in 2006,” says Arizmendi.
“After I finished the baking program I started working and getting some experience, and tried to define the basis of my business. I wanted an all-natural bakery, where I would bake everything fresh from scratch with the best ingredients available. No pre-mixers, additional flavours or dies. Real butter. Real vanilla. Real eggs,” she says.
Arizmendi’s first bakery in the ByWard Market launched in 2011; a second in Westboro Village followed in 2013. Today, her bakeries employ between 15 and 24 people, depending on the time of year. Valentines Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas are especially busy times.
Opening a small business is never easy, but the obstacles can be especially acute for new Canadians. Arizmendi, a native Spanish speaker, says language was the biggest hurdle to overcome, in addition to the normal start-up business challenges.
“The Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation—now Invest Ottawa, was a key organization for me. It was amazing the amount of information they had, and the help they gave me. They got us started with a business plan,” says Arizmendi, who also received Canada Small Business Financing start-up loans from Industry Canada to establish her two locations.
Hamed Zadeh, 36, chief executive officer of SINIX Media Group, was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up in both Iran and Mexico before immigrating to Canada as a teen in 1999.
“When I came to Canada, I didn’t know a single word of English,” says Zadeh, whose native language is Persian Farsi and who also speaks Spanish. He needed to study hard in ESL courses to adapt.
Zadeh’s initial dream was to become a police constable, but back injuries suffered in a car accident prevented him from pursuing that goal. Fortunately, he had another marketable skill, having learned how to create graphics, flyers and posters from how-to videos on the Internet. A friend who ran a printing business was impressed and asked him to work part-time.
“I worked for him for eight or nine months. I loved it,” recalls Zadeh, who joined with three partners to found Single Pixel Studio, a graphic design and videography company, in 2010.
Later that year, Zadeh and a silent partner bought out the other two and restructured the company to offer design and printing services only. The company was rebranded as Sinix Printing Canada in 2011 (operating as Ottawa Print Services) and Zadeh bought out the silent partner to become the sole owner in 2017.
In 2018, Zadeh founded SINIX Media Group with three companies under its umbrella: flagship Ottawa Print Services, along with MiNi Billboards, which business clients use to advertise their products and services, and SnapLite, which partners with an LED lighting manufacturer to provide snap-on, snap-off backlit display solutions.
The Ottawa Board of Trade has provided a lot of assistance, says Zadeh, who recalls meeting his future SnapLite partner at one of the networking events.
Today, Zadeh has seven full-time employees, one part-time employee and two contractors.
He says his business is growing so quickly that he is actively pursuing candidates for two new positions.
Last year was an especially successful year, with the sesquicentennial celebrations taking place in Ottawa marking Canada’s 150th birthday. Ottawa Print Services printed more than 90,000 Canada 150 pins. They also did branding work for the VIP section for the 2017 JUNO Awards, as well as providing signage, branding and other services for the 2017 Grey Cup.
“I’m motivated to build a company that will leave a lasting legacy for the next generation of entrepreneurs. I want to demonstrate that no matter what background you come from, if you live in Canada, you have a dream and you work hard, anything is possible,” Zadeh stresses.
Warren Sutherland, 42, is the owner of Sutherland Restaurant, Bar and Coffee House on Beechwood Avenue.
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Sutherland graduated from Michigan State University, and worked for a year in the U.S. as an electrical engineer, but discovered that wasn’t what he wanted to do, and decided to change careers. He attended the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, graduating in 2003.
“I realized I had a passion for this industry, as well as a natural aptitude,” he recalls.
Sutherland immigrated to Canada in 2004, with the assistance of Warren Creates, who is head of the Immigration Law Group at Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall LLP in Ottawa. Creates is recognized by the Law Society of Ontario as a Certified Specialist in Immigration Law and Citizenship Law (Immigration + Refugee Protection).
Sutherland found the NCR appealing. “I’ve lived in quite a few cities since I left Jamaica. Certain cities are not family friendly. Ottawa is very family friendly—beautiful, lots of green space,” he says.
In his late 20s, Sutherland became a small business owner. He and his ex-wife Phoebe owned Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro. Sutherland has also been involved in partnerships with several local restaurants, including The Piggy Market in Westboro Village, [a venture he is still active in], as well as SmoQue Shack in the ByWard Market, and The Slice & Co. pizza eatery on Elgin Street.
Sutherland initially found it difficult to find specific information about small business ownership in the hospitality industry, creating “a huge learning curve” to determine, for instance, the specific licensing required, and where to get it. “Now, it’s second nature to me. I know exactly where to go—quickly. All the things to file,” he says.
Sutherland believes it is more difficult for restaurants to get financing than other small business ventures because restaurant margins are viewed as too thin, with many ventures ultimately not succeeding. Despite knocking on many doors, including seeking financing from banks and venture capitalists, “my current restaurant came from a lot of investment from me personally, and from my family members,” he says.
Sutherland Restaurant, which opened in late 2016, serves various Canadian and vegetarian menu options. “The décor is very nouveau style. Some say it reminds them of restaurants on the west coast of Canada. The food is influenced by my travels throughout the world, and also by my Jamaican heritage. The menu changes seasonally, not only by weather but by produce availability as well,” he explains.
Employment opportunities are available, but Sutherland says a current problem in restaurants is a lack of staffing. “I’ve had advertisements up for a long time for positions, and I’m getting no bite,” he notes.
1 Canadian immigrants are more likely to own businesses, both small and incorporated firms, than those born in Canada.1
2 Approximately 24 percent of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Canada with at least one employee are owned or run by immigrants (Statistics Canada 2014). This has increased slightly from 22 percent in 2011 (ibid.).
3 Immigrant-owned businesses are more likely to export than businesses that are Canadian-born owned (14 percent versus 11 percent) and nearly half of them introduced at least one type of innovation between 2012 and 2014 (ibid).
1 The data on immigrants was based on those ages 18–69 and those who entered Canada after 1980. This accounts for 75 percent of all immigrants in Canada and therefore underrepresents the total number of possible immigrant entrepreneurs who may not have been captured in the Green et al. (2016: 10) data set.