'Innovate or die' the new mindset in Toronto's food scene — and could last well beyond pandemic

Like so many Toronto residents living through the pandemic, Jannine Rane couldn’t help but notice the damage to the city’s food and drink scene.

Boarded-up restaurants with “for lease” signs slapped on the front window. Beloved bars struggling to survive. Residents stuck at home more often, and cooking more — whether they liked it or not.

“When we were cooking at home a lot and eating at home a lot, we were reaching for ingredients that are specialities that we didn’t have access to,” Rane told CBC Toronto.

After that “a-ha” moment in March, the food lover and marketing professional teamed up with friend Kiran Singh, a local chef, to brainstorm a side hustle — a line of small-batch “pantry shortcuts” like garlic spread and seasoning salts that the pair dubbed Zing. 

Rane and Singh launched the business in September, after developing and testing recipes throughout the summer, and recently shipped out the first few hand-packaged rounds.

‘I don’t think we’ll go back’

“We like to joke sometimes that if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we actually wouldn’t be here today,” Rane said.

Their story of creativity amid adversity echoes what many players in Toronto’s food scene are experiencing this year: A pandemic push to launch new offerings, from cocktail kits to bodega-style shopping to take-out windows.

At the same time, both local and provincial officials granted businesses a new licence to experiment, with rules now allowing alcohol delivery and restaurant patios carved out of city streets.

So will that infusion of innovation last beyond 2020, a year transformed by COVID-19?

“I don’t think we’ll go back,” said Toronto food writer and CBC Metro Morning columnist Suresh Doss. 

“Cocktail kits and booze delivery are going to stick around. Restaurants opening up their pantry is not going to go away.”

Hundreds of restaurant closures

In a city with an already-vibrant dining scene, this wave of new ideas and business ventures was fuelled by unprecedented challenges. 

Lockdowns, limits on gathering, and public fear of dining out all played a role, wiping out profits for business owners across the city and prompting layoffs and closures.

“A lot of landlords are not giving any break to the people running restaurants,” added Doss. “There’s no rent abatement. So you have some restaurants that can’t survive on takeout or delivery alone — and the rent is piling up.”

According to Restaurants Canada, a national association of eateries, country-wide numbers show around 12 per cent of businesses have closed during the pandemic.

Some Toronto bars and restaurants like Regulars, shown here in October, have embraced tents and coverings to extend their patio season. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

James Rilett, the organization’s vice president for central Canada, said it’s likely a similar figure in Toronto specifically, which would mean close to 1,000 of the city’s restaurants have closed.

“Most people we talk to are really on the edge of whether they can continue or not,” he said.

Mary Fragedakis, executive director of the GreekTown on the Danforth BIA, said along her stretch of Danforth Avenue, at least a dozen bars, restaurants, and other neighbourhood staples like a bakery have shut their doors for good.

“And we’re seeing some places open up,” she added. “But it’s hard to know how well those businesses will do.”

City, province made policy changes

To keep as many businesses as possible afloat, Toronto launched its CafeTO program over the summer, helping bars and restaurants build outdoor patio spaces — and take over lanes of traffic — seemingly overnight. 

The whirlwind program was later extended, much like Ontario’s broader challenges to booze policies, with a March emergency order allowing licensed restaurants and bars to include alcohol with food delivery becoming permanent in October.

West-end cocktail bar Project Gigglewater was one of the first spots to jump on that opportunity.

The team at Dundas Street West bar Project Gigglewater, left to right: Neil Malcolm Barry, Alfred Siu and David Hudyma, hold up photos of the cocktail kits customers have been ordering since early in the pandemic. (Supplied by Alfred Siu)

Owner Alfred Siu said after the province announced the change, he started delivering cocktail kits the next day. His small team also hurriedly built their street patio in the summer. It’s a combination of opportunities that isn’t yet profitable, he said, but a “life saver” that keeps the bar afloat.

“Right now, you’re kind of forced to innovate or die,” he said.

And plenty are avoiding a sudden death, at least for now.

Various fast dining joints and coffee shops have shifted from walk-in service to take-out windows. Waterfront restaurant Against the Grain is among those trying out “bubble dining” inside outdoor plastic domes. Eateries and breweries like Ossington Avenue’s Bellwoods Brewery opened up pop-up shops, offering groceries like cheese to pair with bottles of wine or cars of beer.

City needs to ‘allow innovation’

When asked about the city’s post-pandemic food scene in November, Mayor John Tory pledged ongoing city support for the policy shifts allowing some of those opportunities.

Toronto has long been sluggish to adopt concepts like street patios, he added, but the changes of 2020 have proven the “world does not come to an end.”

“I think we should continue to do what we didn’t seem to be able to do before the pandemic: Allow innovation,” Tory said.

That’s Rane’s desire as well, as she watches demand grow for her pantry products while missing the pre-pandemic restaurant scene that inspired them.

“We can see restaurants around the city innovating in the way that they’re doing takeout and so many other things that are developing,” she said.

“We hope things go back to the way they were — or a new normal.”


This ongoing series is exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic could reshape Toronto in the years ahead. Get in touch with your suggestions for issues or neighbourhoods to cover.

CBC | Toronto News

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