By Michael Thomas
Inside Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods, the sweet smell of oxtail, curry goat, stew and jerk chicken, goongoo peas and rice plus the famous red bean soup fills the air. They’re just a few of the many items on a menu that catalogues the dishes of Jamaica.
Albert Wiggan sits at a table at the back of his restaurant, wearing a wide, mischievous smile.
“When I came here in 1977, I did not know I would open a restaurant, but most people from the Caribbean come here with a vision to do better,” Wiggan says. “If you ever have to go back to your country of birth and you are not better off, your own people will laugh at you.”
According to a study done by the Black Business and Professionals Council Advisory Body and facilitated by the City of Toronto, 14 per cent of Black-owned businesses have been around for more than 21 years. Albert’s is one of them. Hard work pays off.
“Whatever you put into life is what you get out of it. If you don’t put in nothing, don’t expect nothing,” he says. Wiggan says he has seen generations of families – grandparents, parents and children – from many different races who keep coming back to eat at his place. “The neighbourhood has changed over the 33 years and for the best. I find it to be more vibrant than before. We have every nationality of people in this area.”
Wiggan was 32 years old when he opened his restaurant in 1985. Now 63, Wiggan says the reason he is still in business is that he always returned the kindness shown to him by his customers. “Manners will take you around the world my mother told me, and I have been using that formula all my life.”
Whatever you put into life is what you get out of it. If you don’t put in nothing, don’t expect nothing.
Around the same time Wiggan came to Canada and opened his restaurant, Statistics Canada reported that Black people made up 3.7 per cent of the population and were the largest minority group in Canada. Even though it was a very good time to launch Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods, starting out can be tough, as Wiggan soon found out.
He says he worked hard for a number of years, saved up his money, and that in those days the government had a loan program where they would match whatever you had. He had $15,000 so they made it $30,000 and he opened his restaurant.
“When I started, I had never been in the restaurant business before, so I went to several restaurant owners trying to get information. Nobody would talk to me. I had to learn on my own but I have a very supportive wife who stood behind me and said you can do it, so I did it.”
Wiggan is no stranger to overcoming hurdles in life. The 63-year-old was diagnosed with a severe learning disability called dyslexia in his early 20s, but that never stopped him from reaching for his goals in life and helping others. He has a soft spot for kids with the same challenges and says he helps mentor from time to time on a one-on-one basis. Wiggan points out that Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison had the same problem as himself yet achieved great things.
Back at the table, Wiggan gives a little of his history. “I have been in every newspaper in the city of Toronto. I have been a human rights commissioner for the province of Ontario, I have two Queen’s Jubilee Medals for my contribution to the community and a business award from the Harry Jerome Awards.”
Wiggan says he was also recently given the Good Neighbour Award, which recognized 150 outstanding citizens on the country’s 150th anniversary by the Canadian government.
Natasha Henry, President of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), speaks highly of Wiggan’s impact in the community.
“He is someone who from what I have observed has really strived to maintain a certain level of professionalism in his business,” she says.
Henry says that she has eaten at Albert’s and loves the food. She says, “Just the fact that he remains open really speaks to the quality of his food and the service and that consistency.”
The OBHS president also talks about the growth of the Black population in Toronto from the ’60s to the late ’70s specifically from the St. Clair and Bathurst area, where Wiggan is a fixture, all the way to the Eglinton area.
It was an era where Caribbean people “were coming to work, to go to school and then there were other people like Albert who were born to establish businesses,” she says.
He is someone who from what I have observed has really strived to maintain a certain level of professionalism in his business.
Henry says the original Black business people in the area are now older and their time as workers is coming to an end.
“Another change is that Black populations are shifting more northwest, more into the outskirts of the GTA such as Brampton, Pickering, Ajax and so forth.”
The neighbourhood has also changed with all the highrises at the intersection of Bathurst and St. Clair but with the transformation, it’s good to recognize and remember that Albert’s has remained. This is an important testimony to the Caribbean community and its history in Toronto, Henry says.
Another person that speaks of his admiration for Wiggan is Peter Mckenzie, owner and chef of Veggie D’light, located on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market.
Mckenzie says after visiting Albert’s place 20 years ago, he promised himself he was going to try to use that same business mindset to open a restaurant of his own. Looking up from behind his counter, and reminiscing about the trials he has gone through in his business, Mckenzie says, “I know the struggles I had to go through to actually get capital to form my little business so I can just imagine his, especially at that time.”
Mckenzie calls Wiggan a blessed man. “I really do look up to people like that, and applaud people like that, for being what we call in Jamaica, a long stare in the business world.” He describes Wiggan as a man who maintains integrity and consistency. Mckenzie opened his vegetarian restaurant three years ago and says he plans to expand his business and be here just like Wiggan for another 30 years.
Over the past three decades, all kinds of people have come to try the food at Albert’s. The walls of the restaurant are adorned with the pictures of Wiggan’s prestigious clientele, from a former attorney general to a well known lawyer, and the list goes on.
We do our very best to leave an impact on our customer, so that’s why we have repeat customers that come here consistently.
Wiggan did not get this far by being idle. He says that he works 10 to 11 hours every day. And after all these years, it’s the customers that seem to keep Wiggan going.
“We do our very best to leave an impact on our customer, so that’s why we have repeat customers that come here consistently. And they bring their friends and their family, and I’m grateful for that . . . Hearing people go to the Caribbean and coming back, and when they come back, they say to me, ‘Albert, I’m coming from the airport, this is my first stop.’ Or, ‘We were in Jamaica and we had this [food], and we were thinking about your food when we were there.’”