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Let’s Eat: A welcoming space for all (7 photos)

The owner of In Common talks about not losing sight of her values, even during the pandemic.

Dani Thunder, the owner of In Common on Cumberland Street, moved back to Thunder Bay in 2017. Originally from Fort William First Nation, she came back to the city as a student and single mom. She decided to check out In Common, then a new restaurant on the block, and says it felt “so inviting, almost like being home,” she recalls.

When she heard that In Common was hiring, she applied. She quickly made her way up to a management position and became friends with the founders of the restaurant, who were thinking about moving on. Knowing that she shared many of their principles and beliefs, they approached her to buy the restaurant.

Thunder bought In Common in October 2019. She was determined to continue what the former owners had started - she would pay her staff a living wage, and she would keep the pay-it-forward meals.

The pay-it-forward program means a diner can pay half the price of a meal for someone in need, and the restaurant will contribute the other half. “We have a lot of people in the neighbourhood that are in need - this is downtown Thunder Bay. And we’re battling systemic racism here,” Thunder says. It doesn’t matter if there aren’t sufficient donations, she says - they won’t say no to anyone who is hungry.

Offering a meal isn’t good enough, according to Thunder - people must be treated with dignity. Instead of handing out a sandwich and sending people on their way, she invites them to come in and enjoy their meal on real china. Donating meals is also a way to cut down on food waste, which is particularly bad in the restaurant industry.

“There’s no way that food is going to waste. I know that whatever food comes in, is going out, and it’s being used, not wasted,” she says, adding that “being grateful for what we’re given and using it properly” is a fundamental principle in Indigenous culture.

Pandemic restrictions have been truly frustrating for Thunder, since she was not allowed to have people indoors, even the ones who need help.

“I’m starting to see what we need to do to survive,” she says. She worked with local marketing agency Shout Media to create a strong online presence. Thinking that socially distanced tables are here to stay, she renovated to expand the dining area.

Thunder says she grew up vegan and vegetarian, and her parents always cooked from scratch. “Cooking is so much a part of my culture,” she says. “Food is the hub to gatherings. We connect through food.” She went to culinary school, but the male-dominated culture didn’t feel right, and being vegan and vegetarian didn’t help.

When she was young, she travelled a lot with her father, and together they would seek out food markets, because “that’s where you go if you want to discover real food,” she says. In Common has a strong focus on local food, and she dreams of having 80 to 90 per cent of their food locally sourced one day.

In addition to buying from a wide range of local producers such as Thunder Oak Cheese Farm, Roots to Harvest and Vegetate Market Garden, she makes a point of checking out the Thunder Bay Country Market to see what else In Common can serve. “We’re always looking to find new local food networks that we can work with. It’s amazing what Thunder Bay is doing,” she says.

Thunder feels that the overall sentiment of local business owners is that “this is our community, and we are going to continue building and investing in our community and our people.” She continues, “I am so proud of this community, and of us, getting through the last year and a half. And thriving.”

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