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Shared love for food

Mary Grace Gomez, left, and Joshua De Leon, right, stand in the front entrance of their restaurant, Omma's Korean Bar BQ and Grill.

Filipino-born Joshua De Leon (Business Administration '20) and his partner, Mary Grace Gomez, are fueling Cape Breton’s growing love for Asian cuisine at what’s believed to be the island’s first Korean barbecue restaurant.

“It’s really the community that motivated us,” explains Joshua. "We started by selling kimchi on Facebook Marketplace, and it was an instant hit. That’s when we realized so many Cape Bretoners taught English in Korea.”

In August 2021, the couple opened Omma's Korean Bar BQ and Grill in North Sydney after much anticipation from community members.

“We’re blessed because the community in North Sydney welcomed our restaurant and loved our food. We gained their trust and in return they helped spread the word about our business,” says Joshua, who oversees the business and operations side of the business.

Authentic cuisine experience

Mary Grace makes all dishes and sauces from scratch with fresh ingredients to offer an authentic Korean and Japanese dining experience.

“I picked the most popular and most delicious dishes from Korea and Japan,” says Mary Grace, who’s visited both countries many times.

“We want to share the experience, the culture, and the authentic food with Cape Bretoners. Our guests get to enjoy their time together while cooking their food,” she explains.

Their website includes step-by-step guides on 'Korean BBQ 101' and 'how to use chopsticks' to help educate people on the culture.

Joshua and Mary Grace in front of a traditional Asian building from their trip to South Korea and Japan.
Joshua and Mary Grace traveled to South Korea and Japan to learn more about authentic Korean and Japanese cuisine.

Partners in business and life

From how perfectly the pair’s resumes complement each other to the story of how they met, someone could easily mistake their relationship for the romantic plot of a Hallmark movie.

Through his career at McDonald’s, Joshua immigrated to Cape Breton from Saudi Arabia with a long-time dream of building his life in Canada. Once settled in Nova Scotia, he decided to build on his bachelor’s degree in business management and upgrade his skillset by enrolling at NSCC.

“My NSCC studies helped me a lot in increasing my understanding about the landscape and economy in Canada as compared to my home country, the Philippines,” says Joshua. “I also learned about social responsibility and giving back to the community, which are important aspects of owning a business.”

While studying at NSCC and working at the Canton Restaurant, Joshua offered to help his co-worker’s new roommate, a Filipino woman, get settled in Canada. Little did he know that when he met Mary Grace, she would be his future fiancé and business partner.

“Mary Grace was experienced as a chef in the United States before she came to Canada. While I have years of managerial experience in the food service industry, from customer service to business operations,” says Joshua.

In addition to her cooking experience, Mary Grace has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management which pairs excellently with Joshua’s business education.

Growing demand

With people from across Cape Breton flocking to enjoy their authentic Korean and Japanese dishes, it’s no surprise how quickly the restaurant grew in popularity and size.

By the business’s second anniversary, they grew to employ four staff and had just relocated to Sydney after noticing a customer commute trend.

“We realized the majority of our customers come from Sydney, New Waterford and Glace Bay, including a lot of international students who needed to take a cab just to visit our restaurant in North Sydney,” explains Joshua.

Along with the move came a meaningful name change from D’Theatre, named for the former building being an old theatre, to Omma’s Korean Bar BQ and Grill.

“Omma means mother in Korean. For us, that’s symbolic to our Chef Mary Grace, the mother of our beautiful daughter Thalia,” says Joshua.

Empowered by community

Joshua and Mary Grace are very appreciative of the community’s unyielding support. They credit local restaurant owners Raymond and Jackia Chan for being foundational in their entrepreneurial success.

“They are my parents in Canada – they took care of me and trained me well. I learned a lot from their experience and their phenomenal work ethic. We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Joshua.

The Chans recruited Joshua to work at their restaurant, where they became mentors to Mary Grace and him, and later encouraged the couple to open their restaurant. Joshua hopes to pay that kindness forward.

“As an entrepreneur, creating jobs is one of the things we can do to give back to the community,” he says.