Israel Alvarez came from Mexico to visit his friends in Kelowna around three years ago. Planning to stay for a couple of months, he ended up staying for good, in Penticton. The week after he arrived to Canada, COVID pandemic landed as well. Israel got stuck. He couldn’t leave the house – and couldn’t leave the country.
There was a special program in Canada at the time to help visitors acquire work permits to be able to work and support themselves during the pandemic. Israel found a lawyer who helped him with that, who also introduced him to Francisco, the owner of the Marmalade Cat Café in Kelowna.
Back home, in Puerto Vallarta, Israel and his friend ran a small seafood restaurant. Israel has always loved to cook, and working at the café in Kelowna was a natural fit for him. What was especially exciting for him is that the owners of the café were open to adding authentic Mexican dishes to their menu – Israel’s speciality.
They also have their own coffee brand, which is a great feature that adds uniqueness to the variety of coffee drinks they offer. Then, there was an opportunity to come to Penticton and manage a branch of Marmalade Cat at the Okanagan College – and Israel took it without hesitation. His girlfriend joined him and they both fell in love with Penticton.
“It’s been amazing. I am really grateful to have these people around me. So here we are, trying to make this little café better for the students, staff and local residents as well," Israel says.
Before running a seafood restaurant, Israel worked as a welder, manufacturing stainless steel furniture and parts used in construction. But his passion was cooking. His three brothers continue working in the welding business. His sister has a career at the local airport. Israel’s mother and siblings live in Puerto Vallarta and his father resides in another town in Mexico. Israel misses them greatly, and hopes that they all will come visit one day and experience the beautiful South Okanagan, and, like in Mexico, they would cook and eat together, and spend a few evenings on the beach watching the sunset.
“It was challenging to be away from home, from my parents, my brothers and sister, from the culture and the traditional food that I love so much… Being away from family was the most challenging thing," he explains.
“Another challenge was being stuck at home because of the pandemic, and not being able to work for the whole year while waiting for my work permit. But I am here now and I am happy. This challenge created a big opportunity for me, and maybe for my family in the future. I really, really like it here. People have been very nice since day one. Everyone was trying to help. The college helped us find housing. I really liked Kelowna but Penticton has more of a family vibe. Being at the campus and seeing the same people all the time contributes to feeling this sense of community, family.”
The Marmalade Cat at the Okanagan College offers some Mexican staples – burritos, homemade salsas, Puerto Vallarta-style guacamole, and once a week, tamales.
“In Mexico, what we look for at taco stands is the variety and taste of salsas, so I put my heart into making good salsas," Israel says.
“In Mexico everyone gets together every time, every day. You have lunch or dinner with your neighbours all the time. Here it is not like that, but we feel the family vibe from the students and staff, and we really like it, that’s what we have in our culture.”
More recently, one of the students suggested that they add some Indian specialities, such as samosas, to the menu. Israel was delighted with the suggestion as there are many international students from India on the campus who would appreciate this addition. He never made samosas before, so he invited the student to share the recipe and help him make them. They did a free tasting event for the students and staff and everyone loved the samosas, and now, to the delight of many students, they will be added to the menu.
Israel plans to continue working with the Marmalade Cat.
“They opened their doors and hearts for us. I am very grateful for that. It seems like it was there for me. It was my destiny in a certain way."
This profile, written by Elmira Galiyeva, is a part of the Community Champions campaign of the South Okanagan-Similkameen Local Immigration Partnership (SOSLIP). The Partnership project is led by the South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS), which provides a range of services for newcomers to the region. The article was previously published on Castanet.
Postscript: Since this article was first written, Israel was invited to teach an 8-week Spanish course for Continuing Studies at Okanagan College's Penticton campus. This weekly night class just wrapped up last week with a tamale and conversation party. The next cohort begins again in February. The business is also doing well, with Israel noting a significant increase in catering requests for on and off-site events. The café is not only available to Okanagan College students & staff; the public are welcome to stop in to enjoy a bite to eat or a coffee. Operating hours are Monday to Thursday: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Friday: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.