behind the scenes
Behind the scenes with founder Gobi Nada and associate Asan Panchalingam, owner of Kothu labs in Perth
“The word kothu means ‘to chop,’” explains Gobi Nada, founder of Kothu Labs.
Originally from Sri Lanka, where Kothu is an authentic street food, Gobi left his home country 25 years ago because of the civil war.
“Back home you could constantly hear the street vendors at their carts chop, chop, chopping,” recalls Gobi who explains that Kothu is comprised of a base of roti, pasta, fries, chickpeas, noodles and rice, along with a variety of spices.
“Every serving can be a little bit different depending on what the customer wants in their Kothu,” says Gobi. “That’s where the term Lab comes from. There’s always an open invitation for the customer to experiment with their order.”
“You can modify your choice making it mild, medium or hot,” he says. “For instance, though you order yours with chicken, you can make it butter chicken or jerk chicken.”
Gobi, who is married with three children and works in the construction industry, had brought to Canada a dream of starting a franchise. When he decided to establish a Kothu Labs chain, Gobi began to look at sites outside the GTA.
“There are simply too many choices in Toronto,” he explains, “too many Sri Lankan restaurants. I wanted to look at smaller centres with a strong tourist base.”
By bringing Sri Lankan cuisine to the more rural areas of Eastern Ontario Gobi also hoped to share a part of himself and the culture of his homeland with others.
“Food is a way to connect,” explains Gobi.
Having learned about business from a hands-on approach, Gobi was anxious to pass his knowledge on to others, especially young entrepreneurs wanting to pursue a career in business.
While the initial plan was to open a Belleville location first, followed by Perth and then Niagara Falls, when Gobi and associate Asan Panchalingam came to town they decided that Perth would be the first location.
“We fell in love with the area and the European vibe,” says Gobi who points out that all of the employees, including the cooks and waitresses, are from the Perth area.
“The people here are super friendly,” he says.
As physical changes began at the restaurant, people soon became curious about what was going on.
“When we were doing the renovation, we had people pulling on the door handle asking when we’d be open,” said Gobi. “It’s a friendly town with supportive people.”
On Sept. 18, 2020, the first ever Kothu Labs opened its doors at 40 Foster St. in Perth.
Once opened the restaurant immediately began to source fresh ingredients for its house-made specialties. All of the food is prepared in front of the customer in the restaurant’s open kitchen with the Kothu team always looking to introduce new choices into their menu.
Early in the pandemic when travel abroad was curtailed and many Canadians were missing the flavour of international cuisine, Kothu Labs provided people in the Perth area with a culinary offering that helped transport them to another part of the world.
“We bring a different food,” says Asan Panchalingam, owner of the Perth location.
In addition to the customizable dishes, Kothu Labs offers versatile signature dishes as well. Common spices used in Sri Lankan cooking are coriander, cumin, turmeric, black pepper, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.
Asan, who is also married with three children, has worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years and enjoys a variety of food, with his favourite Sri Lankan dish being rice & lamb curry.
In his free time, Asan enjoys playing cricket and reading books. He also loves cooking for his family and likes to see the joy on their faces as they devour his specialities.
While the decision to own a restaurant in Perth was a rewarding one for Asan, it came with a lot of sacrifices as his family still lives 3 hours away. For 5 days a week, Asan is in Perth, while he returns to his family on his days off.
During the pandemic, Kothu Labs has proven to be a welcome member of the Perth community, offering free meals to those in need and back-to-school kits for area children.
Although balancing work and home has been challenging for Asan, he’s grateful for the support he has found in the Perth community and is confident that his hard work & dedication will pay off.
Sheri Robertson, Joan Stephenson-Bowes and Kevin Van Dusen know all too well that they occupy a special piece of Perth history.
As owners of Maximilian’s Restaurant the three oversee a tradition that goes back close to 50 years. It’s a legacy that, according to Kevin, keeps them on their toes.
“We like the challenge of trying new things and introducing new items into the menu, while continuing to offer our tried-and-true favorites,” he says. “It keeps us hopping. “
“We have a very loyal customer base,” continues Sheri. “Most of them came to the restaurant as children and now, as parents, they bring their own children and, in some cases, grandchildren.”
While continuity is an important aspect of what makes Maximilian’s special, the owners are also keenly aware of their need to move with the times.
“We now offer vegan, vegetarian and diary free options,” Joan points out. “In fact, we just introduced a gluten-free schnitzel and it’s gone over very well.”
Nobody knows the recipes better than Kevin who was just 22 years old when he began as a chef at the restaurant on Mother’s Day 2005.
“What a baptism by fire that was,” recalls Kevin who considers himself to be a high energy person. “I tend to be the go-go guy on the team. It helps to be a little ADHD in the restaurant business.”
Sherri is the newest member of the team having joined 5 years ago. She had been coming to the restaurant since she was 8 years old.
“I had my favorite dish, the Pork Paprikas, and I got it every time we came here,” she recalls.
“They wouldn’t give me the recipe so eventually I bought the restaurant to get it,” laughs Sherri who started out as a server before becoming a co-owner in 2015.
Unlike the others, Joan had never worked at Maximilian’s before coming on board as a co-owner.
“But we knew who she was because she used to deliver desserts here,” points out Sherri.
It was in 2013 following the sale of her commercial bakery business (Perth Pie Co.) that Joan joined the ownership team at Maximilian’s.
“She’s our numbers person,” says Kevin.
By 2019 Joan realized the numbers were becoming more and more of a challenge.
“Our rent was going up every year,” says Joan. “So was the cost of food, heat and hydro.”
It was for this reason on May 1 of that year that the three took a leap of faith and bought the large Georgian sandstone building that had housed the restaurant since 1990.
“It was a huge accomplishment for the business,” says Joan, “and one we’re very proud of.”
Less than a year later, the three faced a new challenge - a world-wide pandemic.
“We had to cut staff,” says Joan, “and to reduce our own wages. It forced us to think outside the box and to adjust our menu choices.”
Through it all the three remained committed to reaching out to those around them.
As a business, they donate monthly to the Studio Theatre and provide meals for the staff and residents at the six different homes for the developmentally-challenged. They also assist with an annual Octoberfest for the Perth Enrichment Program for older adults and donate to and host a monthly Memory Cafe for the Alzheimer’s Society.
“We were the first restaurant in town to offer an Alzheimer/Dementia-friendly menu with photos of the food on the menu,” says Joan. “The Lanark County Photo Club took pictures of the food and then we invited them to stick around and help themselves to the food they’d been photographing.”
Sherri, Joan and Kevin remain keenly aware of Maximilian’s place in local history. It’s why they keep one eye on the past and one eye on the future. In between, they’re more than pleased to help the community that has helped them so much over the years.
Peter’s Restaurant & Bakery comes by its family atmosphere naturally.
Following their take-over of Peter’s in 2014 the restaurant quickly became home to both Chelsea and Mitch Fowler, as well as their children Liv and Liam.
“Both the kids spent their high school years working here” says Chelsea. “In fact, they still do. Liv is currently on maternity leave, but expects to return a day or so a week and Liam, who now lives in Ottawa, still helps us with our social media.”
When they bought the restaurant Chelsea and Mitch knew they were taking over a long-standing local tradition. There had been a restaurant at that location in downtown Perth since the time John Reid opened a fish & chip stand there back in 1941.
Most people growing up in Perth in the fifties and sixties knew it as the Bright Spot until Tony Noonan bought it in 1969 and opened Noonan’s Restaurant. Eventually, it was taken over by Tony’s son, Peter, who renamed it Peter’s Family Fare Restaurant.
“I certainly knew the place as a young girl growing up in Perth,” recalls Chelsea who was born and raised here and whose family has well-established roots in the area.
“My grandfather’s (Dr. Kidd) picture hangs in the hall at the Great War Memorial Hospital,” Chelsea points out proudly.
Following graduation from PDCI, Chelsea became a certified Dental Assistant and worked for fifteen years in the office of Perth’s Dr. Bob Chaplin.
“I loved every minute of it,” says Chelsea. “To this day, Bob and I are still good friends.”
Despite her love for what she was doing, Chelsea harbored a passion for food and the restaurant business. So much so that she’d occasionally tend bar at Maximilian’s while working at the dental office during the day.
When Peter’s Restaurant became available, Chelsea and Mitch, whom she met when they were both working at Home Hardware, decided it was time to follow their hearts and dreams.
From the outset, their goal was to ensure that their restaurant was a place where people felt “at home.”
“We wanted everyone to consider a seat at the restaurant to be like it was a chair in their living room,” says Chelsea.
Over the years many have done just that. Some customers are so regular that “we have their table set before they get here,“ laughs Chelsea.
For such people the pandemic has been especially difficult, particularly the seniors whose daily trip to Peter’s are often the highlight of their day. Many come to chat and visit, as much as they do to eat.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how large a part you play in their life,” reflects Chelsea. “Recently one of our regulars passed away and the restaurant and staff were mentioned in his obituary.”
These days Chelsea and her staff phone some of the regulars just to check in on them to make sure they’re doing OK and occasionally to bring them food.
“It's a difficult time,” says Chelsea. “We are all feeling the effects of isolation and maybe a little unmotivated and uninspired.”
The challenge of the pandemic struck home to Chelsea most recently when her husband Mitch suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to the Heart Institute where he underwent a triple bypass. It was a bit of a wakeup call.
“This has been a trying time for all of us and a bit of a reminder that we need to put ourselves and our health first” says Chelsea.
“Stress is high and business owners often put themselves last....we need to take care of ourselves,” she advises her fellow business owners.
It’s times like these that remind Chelsea just how important the extended Peter’s family is her life.
From the outset, Chelsea and Mitch chose their staff carefully.
“We wanted those who shared our vision,” says Chelsea. “We wanted those who had a welcoming personality.”
It was a philosophy that has worked well and over the years, the couple have been rewarded with a loyal and dedicated staff.
“I love going to work,” says Chelsea. “The Peter's family is a community I'm very grateful for.”
It’s also a sentiment shared by many of her customers as well.