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Women Leaders in Business: Pandemic inspired popular food truck for Manitoulin chef

Hiawatha Osawamick set to open new takeout drive-thru service after COVID shuttered plans for Sudbury restaurant

The COVID-19 pandemic may have halted chef Hiawatha Osawamick’s plan to open Sudbury's first Indigenous restaurant in early 2020, but it didn’t stop her from serving food to her community.

After hiring staff, getting the new space, dining room and commercial kitchen ready, Osawamick immediately shut down her plans for the restaurant when the pandemic hit.

Like many others fleeing big cities during the pandemic, the chef and entrepreneur from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island found herself and her family back in their hometown that year.

Osawamick said she grew up in the kitchen of their family business, watching and helping her mom, grandmother and aunt in Wikwemikong. Now she’s back in the community doing what she loves.

The chef set off to open her first food truck on the Island in May 2020, serving a variety of classic Canadian food and Indigenous cuisines alike.

“I realized there was a lack of food service here in our community in Wikwemikong,” said Osawamick.

The business was busy right off the hop, she said. People would line up outside the food truck to order meals like burgers, poutine, Indigenous tacos, wild rice parfaits and skaans.

“When you come into the food truck, you can either pick the standard food truck menu or you could go and look at the Indigenous menu. People were coming in, picking both worlds and enjoying it all,” she added.

Being an outdoor food truck, customers would be comfortable dining out at the makeshift patio during the warmer seasons, she said, adding that picnic tables spread outside the food truck on top of the hill also benefited from a nice view of the lake.

Exactly two years since shuttering plans to open her new restaurant in Sudbury, Osawamick is now onto a new venture.

With another summer on the way, she is gearing up to open a bigger space for her food business next month with an insulated mobile unit and a drive-thru service, one of the Island’s firsts.

“People are willing to drive (to have) something to do with their families. Even from Sudbury, take the two-hour drive and come out. It gives them something to do as opposed to just staying home during this pandemic,” she said.

The new drive-thru service will be winterized and will be open year-round, compared to a seasonal food truck, which will remain operational again this summer.

She also hopes to carry on the catering business she had in Sudbury as venues reopen and postponed weddings get rescheduled. Her high-end catering business specializes in traditional Indigenous foods, which not a lot of caterers in the province offer.

Osawamick started her catering business in 2008, becoming one of the “go-to” sources of Indigenous cuisine in Ontario in a matter of years.

With mask mandates and capacity limits being lifted, it sure will be busy for businesses like Osawamick’s catering service, which already has clients for August and September.

In the meantime, Osawamick holds virtual cooking classes twice a month to teach families new ways to cook, usually Indigenous dishes like wild rice casserole, at home.

These online cooking classes have been bringing families together, she said, adding that she gets feedback from viewers that they’ve learned something new and now know how to cook wild rice or how to make bannock.

“Growing up, I was in the kitchen with my grandmother and watching all that love in the kitchen, and the happiness, that's what kind of brought my roots.”