“We’re already selling out of chicken”: This burnt-out nurse started a sandwich shop with his fiancée during Covid
Josh Persaud met his fiancée, Charish Reynolds, while working at a mental health hospital in Whitby. As a delicious distraction from the stresses of providing health care during the pandemic, they opened a chicken-sandwich stall in Mississauga. Here’s how they did it.
—As told to Luc Rinaldi
“Food has always been a big part of my life. I grew up on Leguan Island, a small agricultural and fishing community on the coast of Guyana. I come from a family of rice farmers who supplied retailers and ran their own storefront on the mainland. We didn’t have much, but we ate well. Every Sunday morning, my mother cooked a classic Caribbean breakfast: salt fish sautéed with onions, garlic and tomatoes, served on a slightly sweet bun. Even when my family moved to Canada when I was seven—settling first in Montreal and then moving to Scarborough—my mom kept up the weekend tradition, cementing my love for Guyanese cuisine.
“I learned to cook when I moved out to do post-secondary. Nursing was my mom’s idea. I’d be helping people, she said, and I’d never be out of a job. I’m in my final year now, balancing my studies with a forensic nursing position at the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby. I work on a team that cares for people coming from the justice system; we assess their mental fitness and criminal responsibility, and we try to help them get better. It can take years for patients to reintegrate into society, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see someone change for the better by the time they’re discharged. Once, a former patient recognized me around town and approached me to say hi and tell me how he was thriving. That was huge for me. It was validation that the work we do truly makes a difference.
“Shortly after I started working at Ontario Shores, I booked a trip to Thailand. I’d never been before, so I enlisted the help of one of the hospital’s security guards, Charish Reynolds, a fellow nursing student who had spent a month backpacking through the country. She gave me a long list of recommendations and told me I absolutely needed to try mango sticky rice. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. Just a few days into my trip, I got sick and had to go home. It was a let down, but it came with a silver lining. Back in Toronto, I started seeing Charish more often. We bonded over our obsession with food and adventure, and we soon fell in love.
“Then Covid hit. Suddenly, both of our lives changed dramatically. School went online, and work got tense. While others hunkered down at home, Charish and I continued to work on-site at the hospital. We had to wear layer upon layer of PPE and scrub down before and after our shifts. Because we were learning new things about the virus and how to fight it every day, our patient-care protocols changed all the time. It was mentally exhausting trying to keep up. Plus, I was constantly worried about contracting Covid and spreading it to my loved ones. The fear was insidious, always lurking in the back of mind. When restrictions lifted, my friends and family were still hesitant to interact with me. It was a lonely time.
“When the vaccines arrived, I took on another job administering shots at a Toronto Public Health clinic. I wanted to do everything I could to help end the pandemic. But that meant I had no days off. When I wasn’t working 12-hour shifts at Ontario Shores, I was working 12-hours at the vaccine clinic. In retrospect, I was pushing myself too hard. By the summer of 2021, I was depleted. I felt like I had been running on empty for months.
“During those dark days, food was our refuge. Charish and I began cooking together more often. Unable to travel, new recipes became our adventures. In the kitchen, we could forget the worries of our working lives and lose ourselves in the ingredients.
“Charish and I made a lot of different foods, but one turned into an obsession: chicken. One night, we made chicken parmesan using a recipe that called for both Italian and panko bread crumbs. We tenderized and marinated the chicken, and made the noodles ourselves. When we fed it to Charish’s family, they loved it, so we decided to expand our menu and graduated to fried-chicken sandwiches. From the very first batch, we were thrilled by how good they tasted. We kept at it, cooking them more days than not, constantly tweaking the recipe to make them crispier and tastier.
“We had no grand ambitions for our creations—it was just something to do to keep us sane and stuffed. But when we started making our chicken sandwiches at friends’ cottages and Charish’s family’s house, people loved them as much as we did. After dinner one night, Charish’s mom told us we should start selling them. We didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. But a new adventure? We were in. Neither Charish nor I wanted to quit nursing entirely, so we decided we would keep working our regular jobs on weekdays and dedicate our weekends to chicken.
“We knew starting a sandwich shop would require some cash. Luckily, we had some on hand. We’d been saving for a down payment on a house, but the search was going horribly. Not only were we priced out of Toronto, but we also couldn’t afford Peterborough or Kawartha Lakes. The only places in our price range were in northern towns we’d hardly heard of.
“So we used the money to buy a kitchen instead. Browsing online in October of 2021, we found an eight-by-10-foot food stall for sale in the Mississauga Flea Market, a sprawling indoor bazaar with hundreds of tiny shops selling clothes, rugs, toys and more. In the photos, the stall looked atrocious—cluttered and grimy—but we decided to check it out anyway. Seeing it in person, we realized that, with a little love and a lot of cleaning, it could be the home of our accidental eatery. All we needed was a name. We settled on Leguan because I wanted our business to embody not just the flavours of my birthplace but also the kindness and humility of the people who live there.
“Once the stall was ours, we gutted it entirely, removing all the old cooking equipment and installing a new pair of fryers, a 16-inch flattop grill, a hood fan, a freezer, cupboards and a service counter. We couldn’t have done it without William, the incredible flea market manager who helped us renovate the space. The project set us back tens of thousands of dollars. While Charish designed the space and online branding, I developed the menu. Our signature item, of course, is a chicken sandwich. We marinate our thighs for 24 hours, toss them in a blend of herbs and spices, fry them up, pop them between two Guyanese tennis rolls—golden buns with a hint of sweetness—and top them with cheese, slaw and aioli. To round out the menu, we added a few other classics: poutine, chicken tenders, a milder sandwich called That Clucker William, named after our flea market manager.
“Our grand opening in December was a blur of friends, family and fried chicken. The flea market has a ton of food traffic, so strangers popped by all weekend. We were overwhelmed by support from the Guyanese community, who came to check out whether our sandwiches were legit. People seemed to think so. One customer bought a Mother Clucker—a two-thigh sandwich so massive even I can’t finish it—only to come back minutes later and order another to take home. We’ve only been open five weekends, and we’ve already sold out of chicken several times.
“We started making chicken sandwiches to distract ourselves from our jobs. Now, Leguan is a job unto itself. Still, it’s a balm to our burnout. Though nursing is profoundly fulfilling, it’s also extremely demanding. Food, on the other hand, is comforting and grounding. No one’s life is on the line, and we get the satisfaction of sharing our creations with the world. I love watching people enjoy our food. Right now, we’re trying to find the right balance, churning out chicken every weekend as we work and finish our nursing degrees. We both plan to work full-time as nurses, so, who knows, maybe one day we’ll hire someone to help us run the stall.
“For the time being, we have lots to look forward to: our business growing, our careers taking off, our marriage. We were supposed to get married in Bali in March of 2021—we scheduled it foolishly, thinking the pandemic would end. We don’t know when or where our big day will be, but I can’t wait to see the world with my soon-to-be wife. I’m determined to get back to Thailand. I still need to try mango sticky rice.”