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Nicey's Food Mart — a piece of Jamaica in Toronto

Business Leader nominee #7

Monday, November 14, 2011    

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FOR thousands of Jamaicans living within the Greater Toronto area of Canada, relief from the occasional bout of nostalgia does not always involve a four-hour journey on an aircraft.

Nicey's Food Mart is an unabashedly Jamaican retail store in Scarborough, the ethnic community where most of the West Indies diaspora in that country can be found.

For over 30 years, the owners, Vincent and Lorain Lai, have sustained a business out of catering to the unique taste buds of its Jamaican and West Indian neighbours.

"Anything you can get in Jamaica to buy, you can get here," declares Vincent, without a trace of self-doubt.

"Seventy-five per cent of our customers are Jamaicans," he continues "another ten per cent are Trinidadians, five per cent are Guyanese, and the others are from St Vincent, St Lucia, Grenada and so on."

Lai's daily challenge is to make sure that the 8,000 square-foot food and variety mart is never short of the products that pull members of the Jamaican diaspora under its roof — from the yellow yam, pumpkin, and ginger that they regularly bought at markets spread across the island, to one-half of the national dish — ackee. Even products of more recent vintage like the TruJuice brand of juices have become a staple at this little piece of Jamaica in Canada.

Indeed, a Western Union money transfer service ensures that Jamaicans can send money back home even as they make their own purchases at Nicey's.

Vincent and Lorain bought Nicey's in 1979, two years after their arrival in Canada. Back then it was 1,000 square feet in size, but had a big name within the ethnic community that it had been serving since 1973.

The following years witnessed a rapid expansion in the business — to 8,000 square feet and the addition of a take-out restaurant — Nicey's Take out — selling Jamaican meals.

So powerful was this brand within the ethnic market that the Lais were able to develop a five-branch network using the franchise model, within the Greater Toronto area.

The Jamaicans also built a 15,000 square foot plaza where Nicey's is located and serves as the anchor store.

Nicey's employs 14 individuals, while another eight work at the adjoining restaurant.

Vincent is quick to point to the irony of the employment numbers, with the bigger impact on jobs being traced thousands of miles from where the store is located, to the farming belt in Jamaica and the cottage operations Nicey's has spawned inside communities all over the island.

The agro-products are procured from a wholesaler who imports them directly from Jamaica, with this arrangement sparing the Lais the hassle of running both an import and retail operation.

"Because I place such a large order, I am able to negotiate good prices with the wholesaler," Lai explains. "It therefore does not make any sense for me to get directly into importing."

The perishables like fruits and vegetables arrive by air freight while the more durable food products are shipped in refrigerated containers.

They reach the market not just through Nicey's Food Mart, but the remaining three franchise stores that can be found in Toronto, Brampton, and Mississanga. Two of the franchise operations have closed their doors.

That Lai has remained so steadfastly moored to his Jamaican heritage comes as a little bit of surprise, given that he was actually born in Kwang Tung, China.

He arrived in Jamaica with his mother in 1953 at age four.

His father, who Vincent remembers as a wily little shopkeeper, barely five feet in height, had been living in Jamaica years before his son and wife joined him. While here he had seven children with a woman of Indian and African descent.

"He was a short man but a bad little man," says Vincent, fondly remembering his father. "He returned to China to find a wife, impregnated her and returned to Jamaica. She joined him in Jamaica four years later with their son."

There is an equally interesting anecdote about how the little boy from China came to be known as Vincent.

At age six, Muileung Lai (they speak Hakka) was about to attend Grange Hill Elementary School in Westmoreland, "but did not have a Jamaican name" as Vincent puts it.

"I did not have an English name as my identity was through my name on my father's passport," he says. "The children in the village could not pronounce my name and they said 'how you going to attend school without a Jamaican name', so the Sunday before I started school they said let's call him Vincent."

Later, as an adult, he formalised the name Vincent, which is reflected in all his legal documents, including his passport.

Lai remembers having a strong Jamaican identity even as a toddler.

"I immediately immersed myself in the Jamaican patois," he says. "I did not like to speak to my parents in Chinese. They would speak to me in Chinese and I would speak back in patois. I was very rebellious."

After high school at Cornwall College where he boarded, Lai headed to his parents' haberdashery business on West Street in Kingston, just south of Spanish Town Road.

The eldest of three children for his father and mother, he was first in line to begin shouldering some of the responsibilities of taking care of the family.

But when tragedy struck, the 18-year-old found himself having to take on more than he had bargained for.

"The entire block got burned down all the way to Beckford Street," Lai tells the Business Observer. "There was no insurance."

The fire had apparently started at an old lumber yard and, fuelled by coal that was stored next door, quickly spread to engulf the entire area.

The incident forced Lai's parents out of business, and at age 18, he became the family breadwinner.

"I started my own haberdashery on Beckford Street, using inventory that we had stored at our home," he explains.

He negotiated a distributorship arrangement with a local manufacturer called General Blending. This company made a wide variety of products, including bulk syrup, bay rum and bulk wine.

"I became a major supplier of bulk syrup for sky juice vendors," he says. "The churches would buy a lot of wine from us. All of it was made in Jamaica."

The political upheavals of the mid to late 1970s created Jamaica's first ever capital flight, and Vincent was not immune to the forces that were triggering mass exodus from Jamaica.

His migration was in stages. The first steps were taken in 1974 when he visited Canada for three months to arrange for his parents to move to that country.

His brother Derrick oversaw the business during his absence.

"By 1976, my parents began to pressure me to come up because of the reports of violence in Jamaica," he says. "When you are away the news about violence is always worse than the reality on the ground."

That same year, Vincent and Lorain, a J Wray & Nephew employee whom he had recently married, boarded one of Jamaica's legendary seven daily flights out of the island, and headed for Toronto.

He left the business to a half-brother.

In Canada, Lai worked for two years as car rental agent for Budget Rent-A-Car, but had not developed the culture of working for others.

"I did not fit well with the organisation," he confesses. "I only stayed for two years. The owners had offered me a franchise where I would be a minority shareholder but I was not interested."

Fortuitously, Nicey's Food Mart, which had been in operation for six years, became available.

"We saw an opportunity to buy a West Indies store," says Lai. "It had the nickname of the young lady who owned it, and it was well-known so we just continued with the name."

Vincent's parents passed away years ago.

He and Lorain have three children: the eldest, Dr Richard Lai, is a dentist in Toronto, one daughter, Melissa, works at her brother's dental clinic, and youngest one, Camille, is in school.

Moses Jackson is the founder of the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award programme. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

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