“My husband grew up cooking all the time,” says Suzy Vilarinho, of her husband Steve. “His mother and uncle were always great cooks as well, so he has a passion for cooking. His favourite line is “you need to add love into your food’. It will always come out excellent.”
Suzy, the owner of Hamilton Mountain’s Toma-La “The Portuguese Pit Stop”, is no stranger to hard work, serving in a position at the City of Hamilton by day and who spent the first years of business taking care of front-of-house operations on evenings and weekends.
“Steve is there all day,” says Suzy. “Before we had kids, I’d work full-time at the City during the day, and help Toma-La on nights and on weekends. Steve was there 24/7. After kids, that changed. I’d go in and often people will remember me as the girl who was sitting there with the baby. Before the pandemic, I was there maybe 2-3 times a week. I’d pick up the kids from school and that’s where we’d have dinner.
While certainly, no one can say that owning a restaurant is easy, Suzy and Steve’s passion for Toma-La certainly shows in the cuisine. Opening in 2012 at Upper James and Rymal, the restaurant was a big hit and grew rapidly, spawning a second location at Trinity Church and Rymal in 2018. As of this writing, both locations remain open for business.
“Toma-La” is Portuguese for “here you go”, one of Steve’s slang expressions that he’s known for among family and friends. With a mission to bring some authentic Portuguese culinary traditions to Hamilton, Toma-La’s main claim to fame is its natural, open fire charcoal cooking.
“Our most popular dish is the chicken dinner,” says Suzy, “We receive many orders for a whole chicken grilled with our in-house piri piri sauce, with a choice of two sides.”
They also offer daily specials that add variety to the menu. For example, Toma-La recently served authentic feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, which is a delectable stew of beef, pork, and black beans. The special came complete with kale, white rice, orange slices, and crumbly farofa (manioc flour).
As a seafaring country with the largest consumption of seafood per capita in Europe, Portugal also has numerous seafood dishes, which Toma-La also offers.
In fact, Suzy notes that as of this interview, there has been a growing demand for special fish and seafood orders, which she attributes to the restaurant’s Instagram posts of items such as arroz marisco (seafood rice, served with grilled prawns) which is by special order. “A lot of what we do now are COVID-19 takeout specials, as shown on our Instagram account.”
Indeed, navigating the past year of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions has been as challenging for the Vilarinhos as it has been for many restaurants in Hamilton and around the globe. Toma-La was closed for all of April 2020, and upon receiving the go-ahead for a slow re-opening, had trouble bringing many of their staff back.
“Many of them went on CERB (now CRB) as they didn’t feel totally comfortable returning. Others were living with their grandparents and didn’t want to risk exposing them to the virus.”
Still, there were several staffers who were committed to helping Toma-La survive, as well as a few who wanted to continue working. Suzy and Steve were able to secure the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to keep them on.
Still, challenges remain. “It’s been a nightmare, to be honest,” says Suzy. “When restaurants were able to open for indoor dining, we did a hiring blitz since we’d lost many people. We’d receive some bad reviews as we were getting mix-ups in orders as we trained new staff and we had to explain that to customers.”
With Hamiltonians now increasingly supporting local restaurants, one may be mistaken for thinking that many are doing well. However, Suzy says that the reality is that most are operating at 20-30% of their usual sales as opposed to pre-COVID levels.
A unique expense for Toma-La is keeping the charcoal grills going for 12 hours every day, which uses up 8-12 bags per day on top of hydro. Combined with limitations on how many people can be in the space and staffing reductions, Suzy says the situation is very stressful, especially on the traditionally busy Friday and Saturday night shifts.
“We want to lower transmission of COVID-19 and we are working with only 3-4 staffers, so sometimes orders might have a longer wait time on Friday and Saturday nights. In order to offer the same quality of food as we did before the lockdown, we just need a little more time.”
Indeed, Toma-La is not turning a profit, but is breaking even as of this writing, despite staying open seven days a week, a decision which was rooted in not wanting to confuse customers. “In the past, we closed some days at different locations, but many customers wanted to order from us, but then they don’t know if we’re open or closed. Steve’s main concern was that ‘no, we’ll leave our hours and we just work with less staff, and if we have to go slower, we’ll go slower.’”
She goes on to say that no one ever said that owning a restaurant was easy, even without the global pandemic. “You work hard for literally every penny you get. You are there all day, and even when you’re not there, you get calls from customers, employees. When we go away for a week, our phones are on all the time. Still, we chose this lifestyle.”
Despite these odds, Toma-La has been generous and doing their part to support front-line workers, donating numerous meals to staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “I had one of my neighbours who’s an ER nurse at St. Joe’s,” says Suzy. “I went and delivered trays of sandwiches, salads, etc. It’s hard for us, but it’s also hard for them. It feels good knowing we can help the helpers.”
The Vilarinhos are also avid patrons of other Hamilton area restaurants, ordering take-out three times a week for their family from different establishments. “I always think of giving back and I’m always trying to support others because they support us, too.”
When asked what Suzy looks forward to the most when the pandemic ends, she laughs. “We need a vacation after this,” she says. “We’re dreaming of everything opening up and being able to go to Turks and Caicos. We could really use a long time just sitting on the beach having drinks and ice cream (my favourite!). For now, though, we just want to make sure we can survive.”