Rooster Mafia, Osoyoos
Rooster Mafia Foods goes beyond Portuguese food traditions
When Marco and Jasmine Calisto began making plans for a food business in Osoyoos, they envisioned a café bistro.
Instead, through a turn of events, they opened Rooster Mafia Foods, a Portuguese-style deli-market near Legion Beach just after Valentine's Day, 2022.
The business draws heavily on multi-generation culinary skills of Marco’s Portuguese heritage, but the two stress that the recipes have been tweaked beyond traditional.
“We’re trying to spread our wings and fly on our own,” said Marco. “We’re located in Canada, not Portugal, and we want to use local ingredients to create flavours. The flavours are not going to be identical to what you would eat on grandma’s table or if you go to Portugal.”
The couple moved to Osoyoos from Maple Ridge in 2018, looking to simplify their lives. Marco’s career in masonry paid the bills, but it wasn’t his passion. Jasmine’s 15-year career as a mental health worker was taking its toll. They were looking for a change.
“In 2018, I was kind of at my limit,” said Jasmine. “We had to refocus on ourselves a little bit and moving here and just slowing down life a bit was a big part of that.”
While continuing to work in masonry and mental health, they began planning for a food business. They started out slowly, making Christmas food baskets in their home, but they soon realized that they could not provide a sanitary enough environment.
“We really needed our own kitchen and that was the bottom line,” said Jasmine. “Any business model we’ve had was always a struggle to find that kitchen.”
They considered the former Troy’s Grill, Bits and Bites, and even gas station kitchens, but none were equipped as they needed. Even a food truck would have required a place to plug in at night and some preparation still required a kitchen. Rents were too high, or they would have had to build a kitchen. And then Covid hit, making a sit-down bistro impossible for a while.
“We actually started to walk away from the whole idea altogether,” admits Marco.
Coincidentally, after Marco suffered a back injury and couldn’t work, he ran into the owner of their present location whom he’d met a year earlier. The man asked if they were still interested in a market food service.
The place was in rough shape and needed work, but it was a fork in the road.
“We sat down and said if we’re going to do this, it’s now or never,” said Marco. “We just decided to put our heads down and run with it.”
Osoyoos needed a deli, they decided.
Marco and Jasmine both have backgrounds in food.
“My roots in the kitchen are very deep and go back a long way,” said Marco. “Both my parents owned a deli. My mom owned a catering business.”
Marco learned from his parents, grandparents, and other family members. He also trained as a chef, and for a while worked for a Portuguese caterer in Vancouver and ran a mobile food business in Maple Ridge.
Jasmine learned and taught cooking skills to her mental health clients.
“Cooking was always part of my job,” she said. “It was a passion. You either love it or hate it, so I loved it.”
Marco’s family immigrated to Canada from Portugal in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother and father came from different parts of Portugal in the 1960s and first met in Canada.
Born in 1981, Marco spent his early childhood in Osoyoos, and even after his parents moved to Maple Ridge, he made frequent returns to Osoyoos to stay with his grandparents.
His mother, Maria Calista, dreamed of owning a restaurant or café bistro, and Marco hoped to help her. That dream was cut short when she died of lung cancer four years ago.
“When we decided to open, this kind of pays homage to her,” Marco said. “Everything I do here, especially when it comes to food, I learned from her. Portuguese recipes, the techniques that I use here, were all learned from her.”
Some of the foods, such as salads, don’t have a particular nationality. Meats and cheeses are a different matter.
“The love for meats and cheeses is definitely influenced by my Portuguese heritage for sure,” said Marco, adding that some are Spanish or Italian, and of course Canadian.
Chorizo (sausage) coming from Spain, and prosciutto from Italy, may have a slightly different flavour, but the techniques are similar to Portugal’s, he adds.
“We’re working right now to increase our Portuguese products, but it’s not as easy as some people think,” he said, noting that there are only a couple of suppliers in Canada, and there are supply chain challenges.
Customers enjoy deli-cut meats or fresh deli sandwiches.
“Our mini charcuterie is popular,” he adds. “And then our own brand of hot sauce is extremely popular. It outsells any hot sauce that we have on our shelves, and we carry about 60 varieties of hot sauce. We make that hot sauce here. The recipe took nine years to come up with.”
In-house marinated frozen meats like spicy piri piri chicken are big sellers. Bifana, is a marinated pork that’s popular in a sandwich at Portuguese street markets and at Rooster Mafia.
Jasmine says sometimes Portuguese families stumble upon Rooster Mafia and are surprised to find a Portuguese store. The tipoff is the flag and omnipresent images of roosters.
Which brings us to the name “Rooster Mafia.”
The Rooster of Barcelos, derived from a folk legend of a dead rooster saving a wrongly accused man’s life by crowing, has become an emblem of Portugal. The rooster represents honesty, integrity and good food, Marco says.
While “mafia” conjures up images of Sicilian organized crime families, to Marco it more generally represents family and togetherness. There’s a history of European immigrants sticking together to survive in the New World, he said.
“We came up with Rooster Mafia,” he said, adding that it worked better than some of the other names they tried to connote family. “We thought it really rolls off the tongue. We wanted something that created conversation… It kind of pays homage to so many European people who came here with nothing.”
Located on 89th Street, Rooster Mafia doesn’t have the visibility of a Main Street location, but it makes up for that by word-of-mouth and Jasmine’s efforts on social media. Customers tend to be more locals than tourists, and many are repeat and regular customers.
“It’s been great community response, and everyone has been super supportive,” said Jasmine. “A lot of recommendations and catering opportunities have come our way.”
They get some customers from the local Portuguese community, and Marco thinks that will increase as they’re able to stock more Portuguese products. That’s something, though, that will take time.
“We’ve only been open for six months and you can only go so fast,” said Marco. “We’re doing our best to work through that, but what’s really important is maintaining what we’ve already built and not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
Story and photos by Richard McGuire
Rooster Mafia Foods
103 – 5820 89th Street
Osoyoos, BC V0H 1V1