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Every business has a story. At Xena’s Bread and Butter café on Brunswick Street in Halifax, the tale is easier to see than most: it’s right there on the wall.

Circling the room, a mural depicts the journeys of co-owners Mary Grace Firmeza and Kriselda Alvarez, beginning as students in the Philippines, then health-care workers in Montreal, and then Nova Scotian business owners. The cartoon-style images share snapshots of daily life over the years and kilometres, including the small Filipino markets and coffee stands, familiar from their childhood, that inspired their Halifax venture.

The young women came to Halifax in December 2020 to take jobs as homecare workers. They enjoyed baking in their free time and soon saw an opportunity. "We started creating these tastes of back home and we thought ‘Probably we can sell this in the Filipino community,’” Firmeza recalls.

They began selling online and at Dartmouth’s Alderney Landing Farmers Market. Their unique flavours sparked immediate interest. “A lot of people were sharing pictures on social media and journalists were asking questions,” says Firmeza. “It gave us a market that became widespread … The support has been overwhelming.”

That support led them to open the downtown café. Halifax is chockablock with coffee shops, so they wanted a space that stands out.

“The first thing we thought was just your simple bookshelves, windows, pictures,” Firmeza says. “The usual that you see in the trendy cafés … Then we thought: we could share what we see from the Philippines going to the start of Xena’s Bread and Butter in Canada. You see daily life in the Philippines, then life here in the Halifax — the Citadel. We had a Filipino artist, Froilan Picasos. We just told him what we wanted to put on the walls and showed him pictures that we wanted incorporated. He was able to do it exactly the way we wanted.”

If the décor doesn’t convince you of the café’s uniqueness, the menu will.

You’ll find coffee shop mainstays like muffins and breakfast sandwiches, but the Filipino flavours are the standouts. There’s Pancit Palabok (noodles with shrimp, vegetables, fried pork rind, tuna flakes, boiled egg, and a squeeze of lemon), Ginataang Bilo bilo (a dessert of glutinous rice balls, plantains, sweet potatoes, and tapioca pearls cooked in coconut milk), Ube Cheese Pandesal (sweet buns made from purple yam, with a gooey filling), and many more.

The latter — think of a stuffed donut with a not quite sweet but not quite savoury nutty flavour — is their bestseller. “That purple yam unique taste is why people keep coming back,”  Firmeza says. “One day we had people lined up before we opened up. We were like ‘Are they really going to come here or are they just stopping outside?’”

The attribute much of their success to the Filipino community’s immediate embrace of their business. “Filipino customers are super proud,” Alvarez says.

For many, it’s an unexpected chance to share a taste of the old country with their Canadian friends and co-workers. “They get to taste home,” Firmeza says. “They’ll bring their local friends and say, ‘Hey, this is what you can see in the Philippines,’ like a tour guide… It gives us joy hearing that.”

They work long hours, using that happiness as fuel. “Even when you’re super tired, you come here and you just don’t feel it,” Alvarez says. “There’s a joy that we don’t understand.”

And that’s good because running a small business is rarely easy. A mammoth road reconstruction project is happening just a few metres from their door, which depresses walk-in traffic, as does the unpredictable Nova Scotian weather.

“When the weather is bad, it has a big impact,” Firmeza explains. “People aren’t going to come to this area to walk if the weather is bad. And that road closure has impacted traffic. When that’s open, people around here say we’ll see a lot more people walking … Online orders really help us.”

Advice to travellers: let neither road work nor weather daunt you. Xena’s is an easy place to visit, half a block from the pedway system linking many downtown hotels and attractions, with transit stops and parking a few steps from the door.

Inflation is another obstacle to navigate, with customers top of mind.

“Cost is a challenge,” Alvarez says. “People don’t want to buy anything that’s too expensive. For us, we have to balance everything.” She adds that they’ve tweaked portion sizes and looked for other ways to economize and avoid raising prices, knowing that many of their clients are cash-strapped students.

They feel a loyalty to the city that’s quickly become loyal to them. “We don’t have any plans to leave Halifax,” Firmeza says. “We’re enjoying it. There are future business plans, but we want to focus on this first baby that we have.”   

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