By: Yelin Gemma Lee, Peak Associate
Kula Kitchen, an online food service business that offers Afro-centric plant-based foods, has kept me nourished throughout the long semesters of COVID-19. Much more affordable than frequenting the UberEats app, Kula’s nourishing foods were delivered to my door each Saturday. They helped me out a lot with the struggle of cooking three times a day as a busy student. Beyond that, their Instagram page and shop collaborates with and highlights women-owned and BIPOC businesses frequently. On May 18, 2021, Kula Kitchen celebrated three years of operations. The Peak sat down with founder Asha Wheeldon to talk about her journey.
Wheeldon grew up in the small town of Isiolo, Kenya. “As a child I really got connected around the community [ . . . ] Not much technology, quite frankly, so there was a lot of resource sharing within our community,” she explained. “There was a lot of value system around the process of consumption, in terms of growing your own crops as a community and finding ways to use what you have.”
When she was 11, Wheeldon migrated to Toronto, where her values became even further rooted in community and sharing. It was in Toronto’s diverse neighbourhoods that she was introduced to West African, Carribean, and Middle Eastern cuisine and culture, all of which influence the way she cooks today.
“I use food as a way of building community for myself,” Wheeldon explained. “Kula means eat, which is quite literal, but it’s beyond just consuming — it’s how you eat. It translates into different forms, whether you’re eating or actually sharing resources, sharing space [ . . . ] it really speaks to the central parts of who I am.”
Wheeldon emphasized how her mother always made sure she knew about the diversity around her and taught her to honour these rich cultural differences. Wheeldon, now a mother herself, carries this torch of compassion and community by using her platform to spread messages of solidarity through BIPOC hardship and excellence.
Called to action by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Kula Kitchen compiled a resource list of Black-led organizations in the Vancouver area for the community to access and help edit. Their Instagram page also features a Story highlight labelled “Kitchen,” which is a must-watch. It’s a compilation of videos showing a diverse kitchen staff working while dancing and laughing with each other: a genuine embodiment of community and indicator of the joy that stems from working with like-minded people.
“As people of color we have that lens [of what] we want to see for our future,” Wheeldon said. “I have children. I want to see a different world for them; I want them to experience equity, inclusion, and beyond [ . . . ] I want them to be able to walk into a room and not necessarily be outed based on their identities.”
Kula Kitchen operates out of one of three Coho Commissary locations, at a shared kitchen on East Georgia St. that houses over 23 small businesses. Most of these businesses are BIPOC-led and have the same collaborative mindset as Wheeldon. In fact, Kula Kitchen’s online shop carries many plant-based products from other Strathcona Coho Commissary businesses, like Elbo Patties and Van Suya. The model of shared kitchens offers a brilliant sustainable option, both financially and environmentally. That was an important factor in the survival of these businesses.
“Collaborating is literally what keeps us going,” Wheeldon said. “It goes back to community and being able to share resources.”
Although Wheeldon experienced many COVID-19 challenges as a food service provider, she said operating out of a shared space was helpful in bouncing back from the initial dip in sales. Wheeldon went from being a one-woman-operation — bringing her kitchen knife from home — to building a permanent team for online ordering and delivery services. When asked about what the next three years have in store for Kula Kitchen, Wheeldon expressed she would like Kula to transition from a mainly virtual space to a physical space.
“I would love to have a space, and I’d like to be able to introduce our food and products to different markets,” she said, mentioning Nova Scotia and Toronto as options. “I still think a shared component will be happening. Now that I’ve experienced this [ . . . ] it’s just amazing to be able to work with others.”