Island Foods closes Parkdale branch after 33 years

After 33 years, Island Foods, a West Indian food institution, has closed its Parkdale location.

Ruth Sawh, matriarch of Island Foods, said that it was not their decision; the building where the landmark restaurant at 1182 King St. W will be demolished to make way for two massive condo towers.

Island Foods’ dates back to 1974 when Ruth Sawh and her husband opened their first location in Dufferin Mall. There were clearly enough patrons who did enjoy the flavours and in 1986 the Sawhs expanded south to Parkdale. Now with this closing, the famous roti shop will be down to one location, at 1310 Don Mills Rd.

While the decision to shut down its Parkdale home was made for them, Sawh is relishing the extra time she’ll get to spend with her nine grandchildren, with a tenth on the way.

“After 45 years I’m tired,” said Sawh. “We’ve been serving three generations of customers. I’ve seen them as children.”

The restaurant still manages to serve more than 400 people a day, flocking from all corners of the GTA for some authentic roti, channa and other dishes based on the Sawhs’ Trinidadian heritage.

While serving top notch Caribbean food, Island Foods has also served as the inspiration for a number of former employees who went on to establish their own restaurants. Others remember it fondly for giving them a start in life as new immigrants.

According to Fayola Lawrence-Bovell: “Island Foods was the first job I had in Canada; actually it was my first real job. It helped me get out of my shell, I was shy back then.  Working at the restaurant taught me about Caribbean foods, foods I did not even know about back then and I got to meet some amazing people. She does not know this, but I will always be grateful to Ruth for giving me that first opportunity.”

Island Foods remains firmly a family affair. The Sawhs’ grown-up children all work for and are active contributors to the success of the business. For example, Daughters Lisa and Vicki created the restaurant’s trademark hot sauce, which was awarded third place at the 2019 World Hot Sauce Awards. Kim, working in the kitchen, is getting ready to take some time off to give birth while Ruth still cleans and preps goat meat, by far Island Food’s most beloved roti.

Judith Lezama said she landed at Toronto in 1976 and was taken to Dufferin Mall to “Island Foods – West Indian cuisine. David, my friend and the driver chipped in and said: ‘this is where you will come for good roti’. To which I replied; ‘but wait…I just came from Trinidad, and we have the best there!’ He continued … ‘we want to make sure that if and when you ever feel homesick and get the urge for a good roti that you know Island Foods is the place to come’. That was good enough for me. Since that day, I followed Island Foods whenever I could, from Dufferin Mall to Village on the Grange, to the Ex and to Dufferin and King”.

Last Saturday Lezama set off at 2pm to taste her last roti at the Parkdale shop. She had to settle for a vanilla cake; “Every single roti, aloo pie, other delicacies, pepper sauce toute baghai was gone. Even bringing in reinforcements from the brother’s roti shop could not fill the quota. They explained that they had to contend with line ups around the corner from 10am that morning; they literally ran out of food, but the crowds kept coming offering hugs, handshakes and saying farewell.”