Once a Refugee, Now a Restauranteur

Photo of a man in a white shirt standing in front of the bar he owns with a Coors Light sign above all the bottles.

Kugan Soma inside his restaurant, Tiger Chicken & Ribs. – Photo by Stephen Petrick

Kugan Soma arrived in Canada with hardly a cent to his name. He’s now the owner of a successful business in Quinte West.

“I had nothing … $1,” Soma recalls, sitting in his restaurant, Tiger Chicken & Ribs, at 68 Front St. in downtown Trenton. “Thanks to Canada for letting me in. They did really well to me.”

Soma arrived in Canada around 2000, as a refugee from war-torn Sri Lanka. He was in his early 20s at the time and was grateful for an opportunity to live in a peaceful place. But that new life wasn’t easy. In his first years in Canada, he put in long hours working in restaurants in the Toronto area – sometimes more than 17 hours per day. However, over the years he gained the skills he needed to know how to run his own business successfully.

“Dishwasher, line cook, kitchen manager, store manager,” he says, listing past job titles that allowed him to build the experience needed to be a business owner. “This is all about my experience,” he adds, looking around the restaurant.

Soma would eventually own his own restaurant in Port Perry, Ont. After about four years there, he decided to embark on a new challenge. He moved to Quinte West to open Tiger Chicken & Ribs, seizing an opportunity to move into a nice commercial space near water that was about to be vacated by the closure of Tommy’s Restaurant.

The restaurant opened in the fall of 2017 and Soma has received plenty of support since then. Menu items such as rotisserie chicken and homemade ribs have proven popular. “This is the best place,” he says. “Nice people. My customers give very good feedback to me.”

Soma realizes that he is a fine example of a hard-working new Canadian; a person who made the most of a chance at a new life. But he stresses that his story is not unique and that he’s very proud to be Canadian. He became a Canadian citizen a few years after arriving in the county. He doesn’t visit and rarely speaks about his native country, as he wants to put his experience there behind him.

“My life was really bad back home,” he says. When I came here, I had an opportunity to grow up … I can go to work. I can go to sleep.”

His advice to other new Canadians is “be honest. Work hard. Find a job. Save your money. Don’t make money and spend it. Save every penny for your future. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow; nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

But one thing he does know is that Canada can provide opportunity.

“Canada is the best country,” he says.

— Written and Photographed by Stephen Petrick