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Ottawa's 'Thirteen: A Social Enterprise' branching out with new holiday market

Thirteen's youth-led program has been making unique African spice blends, now found at local shops and cafés in Ottawa, for the last four years, and this year the group is branching out with a market of its own.
Staff at Thirteen: A Social Enterprise during a production shift on a recent Tuesday night. Kieran Delamont/

Even through a thick mask, the smell at a recent Tuesday night meeting of Thirteen: A Social Enterprise is a powerful one — dinner being cooked at a stove in the corner, and all around it, bins of African spice blends being bagged up and sealed in boxes. 

Part business, part teaching and part dinner party, this kind of atmosphere is typical of Thirteen, an entrepreneurial program for teenagers run under the umbrella of the Parkdale Food Centre that teaches business skills through a program based around a simple, almost ancient human business — spices. 

At its heart, the Thirteen program is about teaching basic business and entrepreneurial skills to teenagers, most of whom come from immigrant families or immigrated here themselves.

For the last four years, the kids in the Thirteen program have been putting out spice blends, flavours that in many cases recall their home cultures — among them an Ethiopian Berbere mix, a Somali Xaawash, and a spicy Congolese Pili Pili blend (that I don’t think my editor will mind my saying, goes great on a roast bird). 

“They brought in the spice mixes that they use commonly in their kitchens with their families from back home,” said the program’s manager, Meagan McVeigh.

The name ‘Thirteen’ came, simply, from the number of kids in the first iteration of the program.

“Most of them are new to Canada and there’s sometimes a perceived bad luck, or a negative conception about people who are new. They wanted to change that, and because 13 is an unlucky number, they wanted to change the dialogue around people’s perceptions.” 

Whatever the origins of the name, it stuck, and Thirteen spice blends are now a common sight in local mom-and-pop general stores, retail shops, and cafés. They are simple products that are simple to use and simple to recognize, which, for an enterprise with a rotating cast of young people, is no small feat.

For the teenagers involved, the Thirteen program offers a way into the business world, in an hands-on atmosphere. All of them are paid, too.

Frank, a 17-year-old member of the current cohort, said (through a translator) that he signed up for the program hoping to learn a basic set of business skills. He likes cooking - “beaucoup,” he responds (this reporter’s French is sub-par, but not so bad as to miss that one) — but he also likes learning the ins and outs of a running a business and making sales; Frank says he wants to start a fashion business one day. And getting work experience in an environment like this, a small craft business rather than a large chain restaurant, meant that he could develop those skills talking one-on-one with customers at a farmer’s market, as opposed to, say, a Tim Horton’s drive-thru (to pick one relatable comparison).

After years operating out of the Parkdale Food Centre, the program is branching out this year with a pop-up holiday market, with its own space on Wellington Street West.

“It’s going to be like a Christmas-shopping type space,” says McVeigh. “We wanted to create a space for businesses like us, and other social enterprises, to have more opportunities for sales.” 

In the space, you’ll find coffee roasted by women overcoming addictions in Vancouver, or Birchbark Coffee, which uses some of its revenues to help build water filtration systems on Indigenous reserves. It’s designed to be a place to support social businesses, ethical practices, and knock off some of your holiday shopping, all rolled into one. 

McVeigh and the kids in the Thirteen program are hoping that — COVID willing — the space will be a hit for the holiday season. They’re planning on being open at least four or five days a week. It, too, will be run by the kids in the program. 

“It’ll be like a Christmas shopping space, but our main priority is getting the kids experience,” McVeigh says. “It’s making them feel connected in the community, and providing them with support to take those necessary steps that teenagers need to make. They’re developing confidence and transferrable skills to take them wherever they want to go.” 

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