By Fazeela Jiwa

We’re starting a new project here at the Leveller, featuring interviews with the fascinating locals of Ottawa.

Raw Sugar owner Nadia Kharyati. Photo by Jenn Farr (Flickr)
Raw Sugar owner Nadia Kharyati. Photo by Jenn Farr (Flickr)

We meet so many interesting folks around here, and thought we should share some of their rich stories! For our first instalment, we met up with the owner of Centretown’s beloved Raw Sugar cafe. Nadia Kharyati quietly closed the space in December, and we wanted to wish her farewell and celebrate what she was able to accomplish with Raw Sugar.

Fazeela Jiwa: How did you come to live in Ottawa?

Nadia Kharyati: I’m actually from Ottawa. I grew up on the Québec side. I have lived here pretty much my whole life.  I’ve come and gone several times and have lived in a few other cities.  Ottawa has a lot of great things going for it.  You can really test an idea out here because it’s a small city.  I’ve always felt that, and I still feel that.

FJ: Why did you choose to move to Centertown?

NK: It’s so connected and easy to walk or bike to your destination, you quickly become familiar and comfortable with people and businesses. It’s what you want in any city really. That’s the positive side, because it’s a small city it’s all interconnected.

I sought out spaces for Raw Sugar for two years in the [Byward] Market, Chinatown and Centretown. It was one of those things where I just waited it out until I found a spot that I found really comfortable. Every one questioned it, though, but this neighbourhood was on the way to gentrification. Small families and artists were buying affordable houses in the area and they needed a café. Plus I lived in the neighbourhood for years and rent was affordable at that time so I thought, this is it. I hoped that the unconventional décor/vision would be embraced by my neighbours, thankfully it was.

FJ: Why did you want to open a café?

NK: When I lived in Vancouver in my early twenties, I was inspired. I loved all these little independent places that were doing really interesting things, and I would get excited just by the thought of going there. I had always wanted that in Ottawa. Then after years of international travel and being further inspired, the momentum really picked up to open something. There are certain places here, like the Manx, that have this feeling of being a special place, and that’s what I wanted: a place where people felt comfortable coming in, knew they could do something interesting and creative, and it was welcomed in an unconventional space. Ten years later, I finally took the plunge after years of working for NGOs.

I have to say, when I first opened, the general public was kind of confused by what we were doing – it was like “what are you, are you a coffee shop, are you a bar, are you this, are you that, like there’s a sock-monkey workshop happening right now and I just want to get a cup of coffee.” So there was this frustration at the beginning, but it quickly turned into excitement at what was happening, that this is what they could expect from this place, creative community events and quality music.  I am so happy that it evolved that way, because you’re never really sure, and one key to small business is that you have to adapt, as much as possible, to what the general public is asking for. But it felt like people were ready for this community hub. I hit the ground running and I wasn’t really prepared, but I quickly became so and learned a lot along the way.

FJ: As a venue, Raw Sugar was so accessible for people wanting to start things in Ottawa – the cozy atmosphere is one thing but also actually being physically accessible, somewhere you could book for free, and as you say, a place that was comfortable for a lot of different types of people and diverse events.

NK: It was something I really wanted to do. I didn’t feel right charging for these community driven events. It was my way of giving back and being connected despite this capitalist world we live in. For myself, I needed to feel connected to the community as well as make a living, and that was the best way I could (philanthropically) balance it. It wasn’t without its challenges, to be honest.  But it allowed the organizers and bands to also make an income or have an affordable space for other events and meetings, imagine that!

Many people said to me, even to the very last day, that this was a safe space and people felt comfortable.  It was part of the mandate of hosting events. It’s why we could host Homophono and the Refugees Welcome storytelling night and other diverse events. We made it a priority.

After I closed I got so many lovely messages. You don’t really realize your impact until it’s gone.

FJ: How do you feel about that?

NK: Oh, I felt very guilty. I really did. I had to come to terms with that quickly. Because I closed for my personal well-being. I was so beyond burnt out and my body physically was screaming  you can’t do this anymore. So my heart and my mind and my body are still trying to catch up with each other.

FJ: Circumstances had also been pointing in that direction too, right?

NK: Well my burnout was really dictating the final outcome, and the lease was up for renewal. The business was up for sale but several factors led to a clear decision to simply quietly close.  Property owners are also a real challenge in this city.  If the city wants to progress we need to have property owners who care about the social and cultural fabric of Ottawa, because they are a big part of it, they really are.

FJ: What can the city do to sustain small businesses like Raw Sugar?

NK: The fact that we don’t have a free weekly arts and entertainment newspaper that provides what is happening in the city is challenging. Maybe the city could invest in that? Every other city has a free paper to connect people to events that are happening around town. Small groups that took the initiative can only do so much. We need mass distribution, and getting the city involved to help reach out to the suburbs would be a game-changer.

It’s such a complicated question.  I think the city has to play a larger role in progressing the arts. Perhaps provide incentives to help small businesses stay afloat. Start factoring in small business subsidies when long-term construction projects that have a direct impact occur. There’s a bit of a wish list.

FJ: It must feel good to have been so successful with your project.

NK: You know, it’s funny – I have had my head down for eight years now, so it was hard to take it in. There were moments, but when you’re working so hard every day to keep the business going, you don’t really realize the impact. The feedback has been so great, who knows what it will inspire me to do next.

I guess Raw Sugar did inspire some people to do some things in the city, and I’m only really getting that now. It’s humbling and makes your heart explode all at the same time. How do you process that? I don’t know – you just do what you do best with integrity and the rest follows, mistakes, lessons and all.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 8 No. 5 (Feb/March 2016).