My parents’ food stall at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market never had a sign, so when people would ask where they could find them I would tell them they’re behind the butcher. When the butcher shop closed, I’d say, “They’re across from the florist.” But not long ago; the flower business left too.
And now, as of Feb. 6, their business is gone as well.
For more than 35 years, my Taiwanese immigrant parents made and sold food at farmers’ markets in Halifax. Like many new immigrants, Pi-Yeng and Yi-Chiao Chen didn’t have a lot of money, didn’t speak much English and had limited employment options when they arrived in Canada. After a short-lived attempt at running a convenience store, they settled on a Chinese food counter and a sandwich shop in a food court as the businesses they would build. During all of this, they sold food at the Saturday farmers’ market in the city’s old Alexander Keith’s Brewery to supplement their income. It’s where my brother and I would run wild while my parents worked. We’d watch them sell egg rolls and explain what tofu was as we ate fresh berries from the farmer at the next table, sneak money from the cash box to buy snacks from other vendors and stand in the walk-in fridge on hot summer days.
Since 2010, my mom and dad have been at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, a lively market that drew locals and tourists for its mix of local produce, food, crafts and east coast warmth. Living in Toronto, I would plan my trips home over a weekend so I could go to the market and watch customers seek out my parents for homemade dumplings and a lively chat. They’d tell me how they’d been customers for decades, or that they used to shop the market with their parents and now bring their own kids who run excitedly to the counter to shout out their weekly orders.
My parents were not successful in the standard ways of measuring the value of a business. They hadn’t grown to multiple locations, it wasn’t worth a tidy sum of money, they didn’t have a team of employees (pre-pandemic, they only had three, since the pandemic it’s been just them and a part-time cook). And my mother still had to work every day. But judging by the incredible turnout and outpouring of support during their final business days earlier this month, they were more successful than they could have ever imagined.
They decided to close their business somewhat suddenly, though in some ways the decision was a year in the making. Work throughout the past year had been irregular, contingent on local health restrictions related to COVID-19, and low foot traffic due to an absence of cruise ships and tourists in general. Plus, there are plans to renovate the building, which requires moving the location of the farmers’ market. So, in mid-January, they decided to give themselves two-weeks notice.
Regretting that I couldn’t fly back to see them wrap up the business they’d work so hard to keep afloat, I shared news of their sudden closing on Twitter where it attracted the attention of local media. Thanks to an abundance of local coverage, in the days leading up to their final weekend, their faces were on every newscast, the front page of the newspaper and shared online. My mother got shooed to the front of the checkout line at No Frills when a woman recognized her from the photo on the newspaper in her hands. Elderly customers that had been cautiously staying home for the past year, waited over an hour in line to wish them well. Customers brought flowers, cards and gifts. Some shed tears sharing stories of how my parents have been a weekly part of their lives for years, expressing a sense of loss I hadn’t expected to be shared by so many.
When they were overwhelmed with customers on their final days, my 81-year-old father couldn’t understand how everyone seemed aware of the news. My mother, exasperated, explained that I had “told the Internet.” And though neither really knew what this meant, neither of them questioned it.
People have asked how my mom and dad feel about closing but I don’t think they’ve fully processed it yet. Businesses across the country are closing before they are ready and a pang of defeat comes with that.
Making food has been their life for most of the time they’ve been in Canada. It wasn’t their dream – their dream was to have their two kids become doctors, which neither I nor my brother fulfilled – but it was their life and near the end it was truly bittersweet. Though it didn’t end the way they’d planned, a community, some of whom they hadn’t seen in years, physically showed up to display their appreciation.
The reminder to “support local” has been amplified during the past year and it’s why my family’s little food stall lasted as long as it did. But what those businesses that you love need is for you to do what you can now, because your favourite little business might be teetering on the edge of survival and may only be around for one more week.
Aware that they lasted longer than many other businesses, and wanting to thank locals for their support, my mom and dad decided to donate their final day’s sales – their busiest ever – to the local women and children’s hospital.
My mother called me on their last day, overwhelmed by the people who showed up and the emotional displays of gratitude, amazed by the number of people tossing extra bills into her till. Customers desperately wanted to stay in touch and asked for her number, so she gave it out. To everyone. But with her age and the number of customers she’s met over three decades, she can’t keep track of names so she doesn’t know who’s texting. She says it would be easier if they identified themselves by what they order. I ask what she’d want to tell everyone who’s supported them over the years and she says, “I so, so appreciate everybody. Thank you for coming to find us.” And after a pause, “Can you tell the Internet?”
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