Waterloo Region’s food scene wants a slice of the pie

Between an agricultural past and a prosperous future, the region is poised to become a culinary hotspot
By Allison Leonard - Published on Mar 20, 2018
Opened in 2011, Southern barbecue joint The Lancaster Smokehouse in Kitchener is part of a wave of popular new restaurants in Waterloo Region. (Explore Waterloo Region)

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WATERLOO – People like to argue about Pepi’s Pizza. The downtown Kitchener institution divides locals who have spent late nights crammed into its poorly lit booths. They debate whether the signature tomato sauce is too sweet. They argue whether the “munchie sub” is Kitchener’s crown jewel or just another messy sandwich.   

Restaurateur Nick Benninger and filmmaker Taylor Jackson don’t take sides over the culinary merit behind the munchie sub, or the sweetness of Pepi’s pizza sauce. What they care about is the fact that people are talking about the distinctive foods of Waterloo Region. These are the kinds of arguments that inspired the food-focused documentary series they’re producing.

“It’s more about the conversations and the people,” Benninger says. “Food is just a great backdrop for anything.”

Benninger and Jackson are co-producers of Nick and Taylor Make a Food Show, an eight-episode, Indiegogo-funded series highlighting Waterloo Region’s increasingly — and perhaps unexpectedly — hip restaurants, restaurateurs and food scene. With its clever story arc, engaging hosts and beautiful close-up shots of food, the show feels reminiscent of the popular food-focused series of Netflix, such as Cooked and Chef’s Table.

exterior of a restaurant

But whereas most food media focuses on major metropolitan cities, Benninger and Jackson’s effort chronicles the dining renaissance taking shape in Waterloo Region (population 524,000).

It’s impossible to write about the regional culinary reputation without acknowledging the heavy German influence. Sauerkraut and lager still influence local menus, but today, the offerings span the globe. Ramen and hot pot restaurants opened overnight in the university district. Underappreciated, older joints became popular offbeat dinner choices: for example, Ethel’s Lounge, the unabashedly no-nonsense diner is finally getting due recognition, as is Pupuseria Latinos, a downtown Kitchener hole-in-the-wall serving pupusas, pockets made from corn flour and stuffed with various fillings. (And yes, it’s considered cool these days to patronize Two Goblets, a time-honoured schnitzel shop.)

Meanwhile, local ingredients became king, whether on a high-end small plate or a Saturday morning breakfast sandwich. Breadbaron, a sandwich-slinging operation at the Kitchener Farmers’ Market, serves up a tasty example of how local cuisine is being celebrated. With thick-cut bacon sourced from St. Agatha (a farming community in the township of Wilmot), cheeses from Stratford and eggs from Woolwich, the simple breakfast sandwich is tailored to urbanites’ calls for fresher food, and it showcases the agriculture that built the region.

The food scene developing in Waterloo Region echoes what’s happened in other medium-sized regions of North America, some of which — including Vancouver Island; the Eastern Townships and Charlevoix in Quebec, and Asheville, North Carolina — have become culinary hotspots and tourist destinations. People tend to look to Toronto as southern Ontario’s food mecca; the options are endless and the menus are effortlessly multicultural. But why shouldn’t Waterloo Region — with its agricultural past, and a present characterized by rapid economic growth — share some of the attention too?

For Benninger, winning over the locals is the first step. “People just need to be shown what’s there sometimes — we’re all guilty of sticking to what we’re comfortable with,” Benninger says of the region’s bourgeoning interest in food.

Andrew Coppolino, a food writer known for his blog and regular spots on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, has been chronicling the development of the food scene in Waterloo Region for years. “Fifteen years ago, we were starting to see the first generation of places that [resemble Benninger’s] Uptown 21,” he says, typically featuring a “bistro feel, small intimate setting, but casual food and no tablecloth.”

Coppolino says the current wave of culinary innovation emerged five or six years ago, when Waterloo Region saw an influx of tech companies and IT workers.

Minto Schneider, CEO of the Waterloo Region Tourism and Marketing Corporation, says the food scene evolved to serve the tech community, and “as [restaurants] saw success in their new competitors, they changed menus, opened different hours, offered catering [and] food trucks. The new demand is driving growth.”

Schneider’s take isn’t a new one. Whenever novel cultural and economic developments in Waterloo Region gain traction, they tend to get attributed to the influence of tech workers and their purchasing power. But the people working in the kitchens won’t give all the credit to the people sitting at computers.

Coppolino thinks Waterloo Region’s greatness is largely homegrown. “I think it was, at least in part, that group of chefs that came out of the ’80s and ’90s,” says the food writer, who cut his teeth in kitchens. They were taught “how to cook properly […] explore and experiment.”

“There used to be a lot of rivalries between restaurants, but this group started working together,” says Coppolino. “They saw synergies. I think they saw that […] the rising tide lifts all boats.”

According to Coppolino, Nick Benninger belonged to that seminal generation of Waterloo Region chefs. Today, Benninger is at the helm of a small food empire called the Fat Sparrow Group, which includes four well-loved restaurants. He celebrates local agricultural history in his kitchens; his new chefs are often required to read Food That Really Schmecks, Edna Staebler’s 1968 history and recipe book that portrays Mennonite foodways in the region.

“Amazing places and amazing food have always been here,” Benninger says. “There’s an appetite for that more than ever. The diners have just changed, and they’re looking for these gems.”

The restaurateur’s venture into television was sparked by a collaboration with Jackson last September. The pair shot a video about hosting a pop-up meal amid the notorious light rail construction on King Street in Waterloo. Guests carried their own chairs to the unsanctioned event space while Benninger and his staff grilled shrimp and ribs. A decade ago, this simply wasn’t the kind of place where you’d encounter culinary pop-up events on demolished streets.

After the video racked up thousands of views in a few days, Benninger and Jackson thought there was more work to be done in sharing local food stories. “It was like giving people the keys to the secret door that never really existed. People loved it, and had questions, and that told us there was a viewership for the show.”

Nick & Taylor Make A Food Show will launch on April 5 at Princess Cinema in Waterloo and be available online shortly after. For Benninger, the show — which doesn’t yet have a broadcast or streaming deal — won’t suffer from its focus on food in Waterloo Region: others will be able to identify with it because “every community has a Pepi’s.”

“The best conversations in your life are probably at a dinner table before or after food is served. In that way, this show has appeal to anyone.”

Allison Leonard is a writer and editor in Waterloo Region.

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