Shaping the future of Aboriginal Tourism

Elijah Mack-Stirling is the New Franchise Owner of Kekuli Cafe in Merritt

Sharon Bond-Hogg is the founder of Kekuli Cafe, the first Indigenous food franchise in Canada. With locations in Merritt and Westbank, Bond-Hogg’s business development and human resource strategies incorporate traditional Indigenous values.

Her hiring panel includes her gut: “Sometimes I can go through all the questions and then I’ll hum and haw and think ‘Was this person the right one?’ And then usually I should have gone with my gut instinct, either yes or no. With Eli, it was a yes. He seemed wise beyond his years at that time. He was eighteen.”

Still under 25, Mack-Stirling is also the Executive Youth on the National Association of Friendship Center’s Executive Committee of the Board of Directors. He honours the part that the Kekuli experience has played in his development and realization of his early personal goal to be his own boss and own a restaurant: “Those were my goals in life: to have a youth outreach program, to be my own boss, and to own a restaurant. So I set those goals for myself when I was 12.”

When Bond-Hogg began her journey, there was no Indigenous restaurant franchise model to refer to. She dreamed that Indigenous food could reach the popularity of Japanese, Mexican, or Italian cuisine in North American culture. In 2004, it was still a struggle for Bond-Hogg to figure out how to enter the restaurant business in a way that would satisfy her entrepreneurial goals as an Indigenous woman. With considerable research, she settled on a First Nations restaurant business plan: “Nobody was serving Indian tacos back then. You would only find it at a powwow. Anything to do with bison--people weren’t into that stuff in 2000...unless you came from a family that hunts-- like my family, like Eli’s family.”

Mack-Stirling says: “I was always bullied and harassed about being Indigenous. I wasn’t proud of being Indigenous.” He says it took him his youth and earliest adult years to learn pride in his culture. Eli is now a new and proud Indigenous business owner: “I’ve never felt so proud to be working for FNs people. It’s just the best job I’ve ever had, and I think it’s because I felt like I belong here and that feeling that I’m in an Indigenous business. There’s no judging here.  We’re promoting our culture, promoting our food.”

Bond-Hogg and Mack-Stirling share Indigenous values in workplace culture and lead a global shift in business toward strategies already embedded in Indigenous knowledge and commonly referred to as the Seven Teachings: love, respect, honesty, courage, wisdom, humility, and truth. Kekuli staff includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees who share the same values.

Having achieved the overachieving goals he set in early youth, he shares his plan to take on new teachings and ventures: “I gave myself a two-year goal where I’ll franchise [Kekuli Cafe] again. So, growing the business, establishing it, making sure I have the right staff where I can establish it and grow.” This somewhat of a surprise to Sharon Bond-Hogg, and causes her to call out: “That’s awesome.”

Bond-Hogg honours Stirling-Mack: “He just had a natural talent for the industry, and I just felt he was a good fit for Kekuli. It was awesome. He’s wise, humble; he speaks up, respectful.”His former bosses, Sharon and her husband Darren, feel secure in the knowledge that the new franchise owner is highly capable and gracefully embodies the principles that they implemented in the first Indigenous restaurant franchise--the way of thinking that has created a workplace culture based on Indigenous values and a source of pride and cultural sharing.

Stop in for Saskatoon berry bannock and say hello to Eli at Kekuli Cafe Merritt or check out Sharon’s venison tacos at the second location in Westbank, B.C.