Pandemic pressures end Kitchener’s Caribbean rainbow kitchen

KITCHENER — After 20 years in downtown Kitchener and two tough years, Rainbow Caribbean Cuisine has closed its doors.

The restaurant, formerly located at 29 King St. E., was opened by James (Jim) Nicholas, a Jamaican-born foodie who turned passion into community in the area.

People loved Nicholas’ food, with some asking for his meals to be shipped in bulk after leaving the area.

In 2016, longtime customer and family friend Collette Clarke bought the Caribbean staple – a year before Jim died of a heart attack.

Clarke’s son Marcus Smith became general manager and in May 2020 bought the restaurant. It was then that he changed the name of the restaurant to T’s Epiphany, although the sign and menu remained the same.

It was a decision that would cause difficulties in obtaining subsidies down the line, since the company had not been under the same name for quite a long time.

“When COVID first hit in 2020 we were down for six weeks and within those six weeks I decided to switch brands,” he said.

“(Rainbow) is an important part of downtown Kitchener, but at the same time, I was ready to create my own legacy.”

It was Smith’s daughter, now 20 months old, who helped him deal with the stress of the last few years trying to save the restaurant which suffered from constant closings and reopenings.

After the first lockdown, Smith said business was tough because many people were unaware the restaurant had reopened.

Once sales began to pick up, the store was closed again.

“It was super stressful. In those days, it was like you never knew when the government was going to shut you down. You lose a lot of hope. It kills morale, it kills your passion,” Smith said.

“I think the only thing that got me through was the fact that I knew I was going to have my first child.”

On the morning of June 2, Smith saw an eviction letter posted on the restaurant’s front doors.

“I was shocked,” Smith said.

The eviction stated that the tenant had not paid the rent and that the landlord would enter the unit and change the locks.

Although Smith said he paid rent in full and on time throughout the pandemic, he fell on tougher times after the end of the government subsidy that helped the business stay afloat in September 2021.

He set up a meeting with his landlords to find a solution, such as restructuring the lease, but he said the meeting went without him.

He was then told the lease would be extended if he could afford the January rent, he said. But the extension didn’t help the fact that sales were still down.

“I figure you guys are going to try to have me here forever and if I don’t do my overhead, I’m continually going into debt every month,” Smith said.

Smith said he lost a lot of money last year trying to keep the business afloat and needed to start thinking about his daughter.

“My little girl came in and I was like I had to support her,” Smith said.

It wasn’t until April that things got very tense.

Smith expected sales to pick up in April, a time he said is usually busy. But that was not the case this year.

“I was barely making my sales overhead for the month, which is unprecedented for this place,” Smith said.

With fewer people working in nearby offices and having to shed and replenish inventory during shutdowns, the company never fully recovered from the pandemic years.

“Lunchtime was the busiest time of the day and once I lost that it got tough,” Smith said.

There were times during shutdowns when Smith had to throw away around 150 pounds of meat, he said.

“So they tell me I can’t open on Monday and I just did a full prep the week before – all that food is wasted now. The products I have in my fridge loot,” he said.

The inconsistency of constant lockdowns and reopenings throughout 2020 and 2021 frustrated Smith, who continued to only do takeout. That may be one reason sales haven’t rebounded, he said.

“The way the government handled this whole thing I just wasn’t a fan and I just didn’t think it made sense so I was like until I found out they didn’t tell us not close, no dinner. Keep it neutral for everyone,” he said.

He had hoped to resume meals there in June.

Two months later, it bothers Smith to watch the Bluesfest and know that those in attendance won’t be able to enjoy food from Rainbow Caribbean Cuisine or T’s Epiphany this year.

“It sucks for anyone who really loves food and it was part of their year, or every day or Friday,” Smith said.

Although Smith is unhappy with the closure of the business under his watch, he now wants to get back to things he couldn’t do when the restaurant was his day-to-day.

“I haven’t been able to enjoy a summer, I haven’t been able to see family for a long time,” he said.

Smith calls it “the end of an era,” but he wants people to remember all the times they’ve spent in a restaurant, whether it’s trying your first Caribbean dish or going on a date.

“Even if it’s not there, it’s still a memory to keep,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s gone, but don’t forget how it made you feel.”

Michael M. Tomlin