Niagara Tabaq offers South Asian flavors on the road
Truck drivers look forward to their next meal. As they have a lot of time sitting behind the wheel to think about their food, anticipation builds and reaches its peak when the parking brakes are set.
Truckers prefer light lunches and snacks while they work, but the meal before they hit the bunk is normally the highlight of a workday. Drivers normally carry food with them but dining at a restaurant is a treat they relish.
Food preferences and tastes are changing along with driver demographics. The number of South Asian truckers is skyrocketing but there aren’t many places catering to their palates on the road.
Niagara Tabaq is filling that culinary gap. Say hello to tandoori chicken, palak paneer, dal channa, mutton karahi, butter chicken, vegetable samosas, beef kabob, among others.
The restaurant, located at the Flying J in Fort Erie, Ont., near the Peace Bridge crossing into the United States, sees about 1,400 big rigs visit the truck stop every day.
Owner Yaar Khan said since about 60% of drivers frequenting the truck stop are South Asian, he thought if he could attract a small number of those, it would be a profitable business venture.
108 dishes to choose from
The restaurant started with 500 items on the menu, which were pared down to 108 dishes after four months. Besides South Asian food, regular truck stop fare like burgers, fries, mac and cheese, bacon and eggs and sausages are also on the menu.
Khan is Muslim and serves bacon and sausages? He gets asked that question many times, he said. He sources the meat from a producer in Scarborough, Ont. “This is halal. I serve beef bacon and beef sausages.”
The menu also offers Korean, Italian and continental dishes.
The aroma of spices welcomes customers as they enter the restaurant. Khan’s wife Madiha Sultan and his brother Tariq Khan prepare food in the large kitchen. A commercial-sized tandoor (a cylindrical oven used for baking and cooking) hisses in the background projecting an orange glow and a blast of heat as a couple of dishes sizzle in pans.
Sultan deftly rolls out and prepares naans and rotis to be cooked in the tandoor. “Naan is made from refined wheat flour and is white in color, while regular flour is used for rotis,” Sultan explains.
Tariq skewers marinated chicken quarters that he places in the tandoor. He then shifts his attention to the pans on the fire. On the spotless counter, meals are packed and ready to be picked up for delivery.
The naan was fluffy, and when dipped into the luxurious mutton karahi gravy, it was a treat for the taste buds. The channa (chickpea) preparation offered a burst of flavors. Tandoori chicken was crisp outside, juicy and tasty inside. The soft rotis were a nice accompaniment to the meat and chickpeas.
A former lawyer, Khan immigrated from Pakistan to Canada in 2006. He also works as an interpreter for the Canada Border Services Agency at the Fort Erie refugee processing center.
He owned a gas station opposite the truck stop along with his brother and saw an opportunity as the premises were vacant for more than year. He opened Niagara Tabaq in 2019. Tabaq translates to a large dish or tray.
Khan said it was exciting when the family-run business opened its doors in April. The restaurant employed 14 people, including two chefs, servers, and kitchen staff. In November, the business broke even after expenses, posting a profit of $100.
Then the pandemic hit, and they had to let the staff go. In-person dining was shut down. Khan, his wife, and brother have kept the restaurant open.
“In two-and-half years, my credit history has gone bad and my wife’s credit history has taken a hit. All our savings have gone. All my CBSA earnings are being poured into the restaurant,” Khan, a father of six kids said.
When the 250-seat establishment opened, only a few South Asian truckers visited. Khan went around the truck stop placing flyers on windshields and talking to drivers in a bid to attract more diners.
Fort Erie is about an hour-and-half’s drive from the Greater Toronto Area, and South Asian drivers said they had already eaten before heading out. Others said they would be home soon and would eat later. Most were on local runs, picking up or dropping trailers.
“The people for whom we opened the restaurant were not eating here,” Khan said.
Advertising in the local community helped attract business. Khan offers some interesting statistics. He says only 10% of his customers are truck drivers, 90% are from the town and neighboring areas. Also, 90% of customers are not South Asian.
“Nowadays our business is takeout, people phone in their orders and pick it up. Some truck drivers also call in ahead of time and place orders. We need time to prepare food as it is made from scratch. That is why people love our food,” Khan said.
When the restaurant was open for in-person dining, truckers wanted to sit and eat. “Now they come, see the sitting area shut, they walk away.”
Khan and his family hope things will get better as restrictions ease, and they can once again welcome customers to dine at the restaurant. For now, they can only wait for the phone to ring for the next order.
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