Managing a restaurant in a “ghost town”: owners reflect on the pandemic

In partnership with the City of Toronto and CaféTO, the CBC Toronto television channel Serve the change The series profiles business owners in five areas of the city who, in addition to innovating and working overtime, enjoy incredible community support.

CBC Toronto’s Community Partnership Series Serve the change continues in the downtown Toronto neighborhood. This 17 square kilometer area is the city’s financial epicenter, Canada’s economic engine.

Geographically, it is bordered by Bloor Street to the north, Bathurst Street to the west, Lake Ontario to the south, and Don Valley Drive to the east.

Before the pandemic, Dundas Square was a bustling focal point, teeming with tourists, day trippers and pedestrians. Now this vibrant metropolis has been transformed into a very different scene.

“It was a ghost town,” said Mark Garner, downtown Yonge BIA operations manager. “It was strange, with the lack of foot traffic in the heart of Canada’s iconic Main Street. We would normally see up to 45 million people walking north and south on Yonge Street each year. At the height of the pandemic, our pedestrian count was down 85% from the previous year. “

Before the reopening of stores and indoor dining rooms in this “ghost town”, many restaurants and businesses were forced to close. Along Yonge Street, vacant stores are a reminder of those who haven’t. However, what marked the end of the life of some companies turned out to be a new beginning for others.

Kareema Beckles recognized this opportunity and seized the chance.

After securing a loan and space for a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Beckles opened Chef Kareema Caribbean Fusion in December 2020. Before the pandemic, she owned a thriving restaurant business, but COVID-19 forced her to swing.

Kareema Beckles has just installed a new sign in front of its downtown area in Dundas East. She says she is optimistic and the restaurant is here to stay. (Jennifer Williams / CBC)

“Losing another person was my gain,” Beckles conceded. “It is heartbreaking for all the companies that did not succeed.”

A few months after it opened, its front door was vandalized and its windows smashed. Beckles had been concerned about crime at the Dundas Street East and Jarvis Street location. Despite her apprehensions, her neighbors rallied around her.

“Once the community found out about my restaurant, I developed a few regulars. They said to me ‘try to stay and try to get out of this because we need you in the area, you have good food ‘. “

Residents and neighboring restaurateurs even called him on his days off, to let him know that nothing had been broken or vandalized. This support, combined with prayer and faith, has led Beckles to fully embrace his neighborhood in downtown Toronto. And she pays it forward by offering one free meal per day to a community member in need.

“I’m from North York, but when I opened the business here, it also became my community,” Beckles beamed. “I’m a downtown person now.”

For well-established restaurants like Salad King on Yonge Street, just north of Dundas Street, the clientele is multi-layered with community at its center.

“Our customers are a microcosm of people who live, work and play in downtown Yonge. So we have a pretty diverse mix of students, workers and visitors, ”said owner Alan Liu.

With the onset of the pandemic, its clientele, mainly students and office workers, disappeared. This left Liu with a deeper appreciation for his neighborhood community.

“We’ve seen fewer people on the streets over the past year, so it’s the locals who really kept us afloat. The take-out and delivery business has been a lifeline,” he said. -he declares.

Salad King, originally located on Gould Street, has been a downtown staple for 30 years. Alan Liu’s family opened in 1991. He took over the business 10 years ago and moved it to his current location on Yonge Street. (Jennifer Williams / CBC)

According to the Downtown Yonge BIA, 175,000 people live within a 10-minute walk of the Yonge and Dundas intersection. However, because downtown Toronto is a trade-driven financial center, it is unique to other close-knit communities in the city.

“One of the most important things to incorporate into recovery solutions will be increasing residential uses in the downtown core,” said Mary W. Rowe, President and CEO of the Urban Institute of Canada (CUI). “More investment in public space, so if you work from home you have a place to go out.”

Rowe and CUI are behind Restore the kernel, a nationally coordinated research campaign focused on supporting downtown recovery efforts across Canada. Rowe says building strong communities and neighborhoods downtown is the key to a sustainable recovery.

Garner of the downtown Toronto BIA is optimistic and is moving forward.

“To see people coming back to the neighborhood, to see grocery bags in hand, the patios filling up is very optimistic,” Garner said. “If we stay the course with vaccinations, social distancing and masks, then fall promises to be a very promising time.”

“For Rent” signs are common on Yonge Street and downtown, a sad reminder of the many businesses that had to close their doors during the pandemic. (Jennifer Williams / CBC)

He is also working towards a better future and is convinced that Salad King will recover.

“We hope to get back to almost 100% of where we were, but it won’t be in September, it might be sometime in 2022,” he said.

For Beckles, who opened a brick and mortar restaurant during the pandemic: her work ethic and faith keep her going.

“The fight is real. It’s hard. It’s very moving,” she conceded. “My friend, who also owns a restaurant, we pray for each other. But I am optimistic.”

CBC Toronto Serving Change Series will work all summer. Stay tuned for more restaurant features from other Toronto neighborhoods. Coming soon: Spotlight on the community of Scarborough.

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