“The amount of people that would either stop me coming in, or literally walk in and say “are you crazy? Opening a Lebanese restaurant in North Bay?” was insane.”Roger Gergi, Owner of The Cedar Tree
Authentic Lebanese cuisine and the city of North Bay seem like odd bed-fellows, but there is no better spot to get a great meal in North Bay than The Cedar Tree.
Opened in 2009 by Roger and Yasmin Gergi, The Cedar Tree offers a menu of traditional Lebanese favourites like Tabouli, Shawarma, and Kafta, as well as Canadian favourites with a Lebanese twist, such as poutine. The meals are high quality, absolutely delicious, and as a result the Cedar Tree is one of North Bay’s worst kept secrets for great food.
Lebanon’s cedar trees are world renowned. The country is situated on the Mediterranean Sea, and bordered by Syria and Israel. Lebanon has a cedar tree on the national flag, and that tree is an emblem found both inside and outside of the restaurant.
The name The Cedar Tree, comes from the Lebanese Cedar tree species – Cedrus libani – which holds deep cultural and spiritual importance in Lebanon. The flag of the country even includes a Cedar Tree. The Cedars of God, located in Lebannon’s Kadisha Valley, are referenced in ancient history and biblical texts, and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
The Cedar Tree restaurant is located on Main Street W. downtown, and when you walk in for the first time, you can just tell you’re in for something different. You can also just smell that you’re in for something good.
The restaurant is clean, open, and features a middle-eastern atmosphere from the music, to the decor, to the menu. One wouldn’t think they’re in North Bay in the restaurant, it has the quality and atmosphere that would have you convinced you’re downtown Toronto at a new spot that you both want to tell everyone about, and want to keep your own little secret corner of the universe.
Roger and Yasmin are dedicated owners, facing challenges like fires in their decade long run at Cedar Tree. As a regular customer, I have to say, I feel like Roger is there to take and make my order almost every time I go. He makes everyone feel like a regular who has been missed, and honestly while he might not know me by name, the fact he recognizes customers, jokes with them, and makes it incredibly clear that he appreciates your business, is exactly the feeling of community that North Bay is sometimes without.
In a city where much of the dine-in and take-out food comes courtesy of franchises you could find anywhere, a spot like The Cedar Tree, where one can support local business and expect a consistent quality of food is like an oasis in the desert.
Restaurants like The Cedar Tree are what gives a city a sense of place.
Just prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, I sat down to speak with Roger about their story:
RM: First off, where are you from and how did you wind up here?
RG: I’m from Lebanon, I moved to Canada when I was 8, originally to Ottawa. From there, once my wife and I got married we moved around a lot. Ottawa, Toronto, Brampton, Hamilton, Calgary, and from Calgary we moved to North Bay.
It was supposed to be, we come to North Bay, we’d do one year like we had normally done. We didn’t have kids yet, so there was nothing really tying us down. We planned to come to North Bay, and then move onto our next adventure. But my wife got pregnant with our first born, and we had to think about where we wanted to raise our kids. And this was the place, we thought about all the places we’d been, and where we wanted our kids to grow up, and we just thought “North Bay is definitely where we want to be”.
RM: And at what point did you decide “alright, we’re going to sell Middle-eastern food here in North Bay?
RG: So this was always a plan of mine. I’ve been in the food industry forever, it’s all I’ve really ever done. I went to school for it, Humber College for Hospitality Management. When we moved here I was a district manager at Cara (Swiss Chalet), but I had always planned to open a Lebanese shop.
One day we saw this place [his restaurant], we were driving by and I saw this place was empty. It was up for rent, and when I peaked in the window, it was almost the exact set up that I had always envisioned: open kitchen, small place. So I called the landlord and asked to walk through. There was no hydro so we came in with flashlights. After looking at the place, I went home that night and told my wife “I’m giving my notice at work and were opening a Lebanese shop.” And here we are!
It happened quickly. We had always thought about it, we hadn’t planned on it being in North Bay, but since she was pregnant with Tony at the time and it was there. It was the same, it was what we wanted.
RM: It matched your mind’s eye.
That said, my parents were back home in Lebanon. Again I’m a restaurant guy, I’ve been in the business a long time. But I had never cooked Lebanese food. I had been at Boston Pizza, Swiss Chalet, Canadian food, you know? Big Chains.
So, I know how to eat Lebanese food, I know how it’s supposed to taste. But my mom cooked for us. So I called my mom. We took the lease, and I thought if my mom can’t help me, I’ll open a burger joint or something. So I called my mom and I said, “Mom, I bought a shop and I want to open up a Lebanese place but I have no clue what I’m doing. Are you able to help me?”
So my mom and dad came. My dad helped me with the renovations and getting the place setup. My mom helped me with recipes and how to.
RM: North Bay is not necessarily known for being overly diverse, were you worried about bringing Lebanese flavour to a Canadian palate?
RG: Extremely. But when I first decided to open I wasn’t worried at all. I’m like, “This thing is going to be amazing, we’re going to kill it and it’s going to be fantastic.”
But in the middle of our renos, we had the windows tapped up and we just had a sign that said “Lebanese restaurant opening soon”. The amount of people that would either stop me coming in, or literally walk in and say, “Are you crazy? Opening a Lebanese restaurant in North Bay?” was insane. No word of a lie, it was insane.
RM: People were trying to warn you?
RG: There were two or three people, two of them I remember specifically, literally to my face said “I give you six months”.
So to me, young, cocky, I know what I’m doing. This is business I grew up with, I studied: you know I’m like “see you in six months”.
But it was worrysome. We didn’t borrow money to open this. When we opened, whatever was here we used. Whatever money we had saved up was what we used. We used all our savings to get this place opened. It was do or die.
But I was confident until the first day we opened. I remember that day like it was yesterday. We opened and did $400. That wasn’t even enough to cover operating. We lost money.
I remember going home that night, I couldn’t even look my wife in the eyes, ’cause in my mind: we’re not going to make it 6 months.
Mind you, we opened with no advertising other that the sign on the window. So $400 dollars, I go home, cry like a baby.
The next day we opened the door at 11 am and thirty people were waiting outside.
RM: What happened?
RG: Word of mouth
RM: The few people who tried it had great things to say?
RG: All word of mouth, being in a small town word travels pretty quick, so once the place opened, they’d try it and tell their friend about the new Lebanese place. By the next day we were jamming in here!
At that point I was like, ok I can breathe. That said, we doing ok, we were staying afloat, but we weren’t where I though we should be. So I thought why aren’t people coming in and trying it. We would have people come in, look around, listen to the music and say, “What kind of food do you make? Lebanese? Ew.” and walk out.
RM: You’ve got to have the first bite.
RG: So I made up this big “Poutine” sign. I still have the sign in my office. I put the sign in the window “Poutine $3.99”. Who doesn’t love poutine?
So people were coming in for poutine, awesome, while we’re making your poutine for you, “try this, try this, try that, try that”, and thankfully, they did.
RM: What a cool story! That’s a really neat story. So, by the end of the first year, you felt A) This is going to work or B) This is going to take a lot more work than I thought?
RG: I knew it was going to take a lot more work than I thought. Again, in my mind it was, “Ok, we’re just going to open and it’s going to go crazy”. Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. It took a lot of hard work to get it where we are. It takes a lot of hard work to keep us where we are.
I thought it would be a lot easier to get people to come in a try the food. Getting people to understand that our food is really not that foreign. You can say, “I’m a meat and potatoes kinda guy” and that’s great. Our food is chicken, beef, meat, lettuce, tomato, onions, garlic sauce. It’s all stuff people have had before, just not necessarily in the way we put it together. Our seasoning is thyme, oregano, garlic, olive oil, it’s stuff people are very used to. Like you say, it’s getting them to have that first bite, and getting them over the mindset that it’s something crazy.
Try it, we tell everyone new who comes in, “Try it, if you hate it, I will not be upset by that. Spit it out and tell me you hate it. Everyone has a different palate, and if you don’t like it, that’s ok. I’m just happy that you tried it.”
But it picked up eventually, and we’ve been here 10 years now.
RM: You faced, by my count at least two major challenges from fire here over that 10 years. With a normal job you don’t have to make a call about moving on. As a business owner though, you had to make the decision to keep going. What gave you the strength to get through that?
RG: Luckily, we never had a fire in the restaurant. The first fire was on the roof. There was roofers working on the building and the roof caught fire. We were shut down from the amount of smoke and water damage we had. So it had nothing to do with the restaurant, but that one specifically we were borderline. The floor was starting to cave in and the insurance wouldn’t cover the $60,000 we would need to fix it all.
So we thought , do we spend $60,000 and reopen, or do we walk away because whose got 60 grand lying around, I sure don’t. But we got through it. It took us 6 months to reopen. So we were able to scrounge up enough to get the floor done.
RM: Were you worried people would forget?
RG: Absolutely, but you know what, for me, it was almost needed. Before that I was working 6 days a week open to close. I didn’t get to see my kids.
It really settled in when we were closed, and I’d pick up the kids from school while my wife was at work. Well one day I asked them if they wanted pizza. And they were young, and I didn’t know what they wanted on their pizza. I had to call my wife and ask what they liked. From that point I knew I wasn’t spending enough time at home.
The next day I went to the shop, gave the workers doing the renos the keys and said, “Call me when you’re done”.
RM: It changed your life for the better.
RG: It was needed.
RM: That is so interesting.
Note: This conversation was broken up in two parts, the first on March 13, 2020, and the second on May 17, 2020. This is where the break in the conversation occurred.
RM: When we last spoke, you were deliberating on whether to close in response to the pandemic. Obviously you decided to close for some time, and just recently you’ve reopened for delivery and takeout on weekdays. How did you make use of the time away from the restaurant.
RG: Well, when we decided to shut down, nobody really knew what was going on. So we thought, “Well, we’ll take a week or two off and things will get back to normal and we’ll get back at ‘er”.
Well, it turns out we took two months off, and things definitely aren’t getting back to normal.
But the time that we took off was fantastic, I’m not going to lie. From a financial perspective obviously it sucks when you’re not working, but everything else has been fantastic. We got so much stuff done around the house that needed to get done, that we hadn’t had time for. We spent so much time woodworking with the kids. We have this old, beat up golf cart that doesn’t run, so my son and I took the time to take it all apart and get it working.
RM: As a teacher it’s so interesting hearing all the learning that’s going on outside of the classroom right now. Sure, it doesn’t look the same, but what you’re doing is learning, what a great experience for him!
Were you surprised by the reception when you announced you’d be reopening? And did you miss the restaurant?
RG: The first month or month and a half off, I was totally ok with it because we’ve been so busy. But the last few weeks, now that we’ve gotten done the stuff that needed to be done, that’s when it really kicked in that I need to get back to work. And not just from a financial perspective, from the perspective of, “I need to get back to work and do what I do”. We definitely missed it.
But in both the decision to shut down and to reopen we took into consideration our staff, because it affects them just as much as it does us. So before we closed we checked in to see where everyone’s head was at and if they would be ok with the decision. And throughout the two months we’ve been closed we’ve kept in touch with all of our staff just to make sure they’re ok from the financial perspective, and otherwise. When we decided to reopen, we called in the staff for a meeting to make sure they were ready to get back to work. We didn’t want to put anyone into a situation in which they’d be uncomfortable.
When we reopened the response was overwhelming. Last week was our first week back and it was absolutely insane. I couldn’t believe the amount of support. There were even a couple of days we had to stop taking orders because we just got swamped. The response was absolutely amazing.
We’re blessed man, we’re very blessed, we have a great spot, we have wonderful customers, you couldn’t ask for anything more.
RM: You have great support, but it is what you do with your blessings! You’ve incorporated your employees into the decision marking, and checking in on them, that’s the charm of a small business and it’s touching. I really appreciate hearing that.
RG: We realized when we shut down that some of the staff don’t have the financial means set aside to weather that storm, it’s hurting them just as much if not more.
Our staff has been with us for awhile. Our staff just isn’t our employees. We take care of them because ultimately they take care of us, they take care of my business, it’s a two way street.
RM: Let’s move on to something beyond the ongoing Pandemic. If you had to pick one menu item that was extra meaningful or special to you, which would it be and why?
RG: Wow that is a tough one. Honestly, probably the Veggie Shawarma, and the reason is you can’t go to any other Lebanese restaurant and find a Veggie Shawarma the way we do it. We use tofu. Traditionally speaking, in Lebanese cuisine, you just wouldn’t use tofu. That’s something we came up with on our own to try out because there’s a lot of vegetarians and vegans in North Bay.
Of course, we have the falafel wrap, which is vegan, but wanted to add another vegan option. So we tried to figure out how we could keep it Lebanese, but to give our vegan and vegetarian customers something different. We started experimenting with types of tofu and marinades and came up with the veggie shawarma. And it’s a huge seller, people love it, especially vegans and vegetarians.
That’s something I created, and it’s not your traditional dish you can get anywhere.
RM: It sounds like you’ve done something new but you’ve done it in the spirit of the traditional cuisine which is very interesting. Yeah that sounds cool I think you’ve sold me, you’ll see that on my next order.
Based on the lessons you’ve learned from your journey, both in family life and as a business owner, what message would you choose to display on a billboard that many people would see?
(Note – The Billboard question is stolen from the Tim Ferriss podcast)
RG: Honestly, a couple of things:
First is, “Stay true to what you do best“. We’ve seen it so many times where restaurants try to do too much. For us it’s stay true to what you do best.
The second lesson is that ,”You can’t please everybody“. We’ve learned to stop trying to please everybody. We do the best we can, the best we know how, and that’s all we can do, right?
When we first opened we were trying to make sure that everyone who came in was pleased, but it got us into trouble, because people have different tastes. Some people like a lot of garlic in their sauce, some people don’t like so much garlic in their sauce. So we can’t please everybody, we do it the way we know how, the best way we know how, and hope that’s enough.
RM: You’ve stated that North Bay is a great place to live, and that it was the obvious choice as a place to raise your family. What do you see for the future of our community? If your children were to raise their kids here, what would you want our city to be like?
RG: I think where we’re at is a great place. There’s always something that could be better. For us, one of the biggest changes we’ve seen when we moved here about 13 years ago, there was no diversity in restaurants. You could get Chinese or you could get Italian . And now you’ve got Indian, Lebanese, Japanese, French place opened up, Mexican place opened up. We’re definitely seeing a lot more diversity. Which is awesome, because for us, that was one of the shortcomings of North Bay: “I feel like Indian, but I can’t get Indian!” you know what I mean? And the culture, our kids are missing out on some of the diverse culture they might get growing up in a bigger city. But aside from that I think North Bay is just such a great, great place.
What I found most interesting about the conversation, believe it or not, is not the pretty outstanding tale of a young couple that found a home, and their dream, in North Bay. Of course, the story is great, but what I was most struck by was how Roger told it.
It was obvious he is very proud of his family’s accomplishments, and proud that they had followed their dream and did it their way. That said, it was also obvious that he is incredibly humble, kind, and genuine.
The Cedar Tree is exactly the kind of local business that brings North Bay forward. It introduces delicious cuisine that many locals might not have endeavoured to try had they not heard of Roger and Yasmin’s restaurant. It shows the strength of diversity, brings a neighbourhood feel to the city, and, stands as a humble local monument to the perseverance of a dream.
Oh, and it’s absolutely delicious.
Thank you for everything you do Roger and Yasmin, you make North Bay a better place.
Sincerely, Donair combo, both sauces, hold the onions, potatoes as the side.
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