To say 2020 was tough for Toronto’s restaurant and hospitality industry would be a vast understatement.
Running a restaurant or a bar in good times involves thin margins, uncanny adaptiveness and flexibility and this year stretched owners and staff to their absolute limit.
We lost many favourite spots that were integral to their neighbourhoods. Community hubs with storied local histories like Furama Bakery in Chinatown, Apiecalypse Now! in Koreatown and Cold Tea in Kensington Market, will be sorely missed.
Of those still hanging on, many made the COVID pivot: From winterized patios to going takeout and delivery only, it’s been a year of adaptation and creativity. The city removed red tape to encourage people to gather outside and people filled sidewalk cafes – a sight we hope continues.
Importantly, this year also resuscitated conversations about food justice and access. Over one million Canadians slipped into food insecurity this year after losing work or housing. Mutual aid organizations, food banks and charities that previously felt they were yelling into a void, found themselves with a loudspeaker and the ear of the government and the general public.
Working collectively there’s hope we can emerge from this crisis better than before. Above all, we want to see restaurants – and all Torontonians – recover and flourish again in 2021.
Here are seven Toronto food trends we hope stick around in the new year and beyond.
The Ambassador app
Chances are, if you spent any time on a patio this summer, you used the Ambassador app. Not only does it allow restaurants manage delivery and takeout orders while avoiding hefty commissions from third-party apps like Uber Eats or DoorDash, it also functions as an at-the-table payment solution. Order directly from a restaurant’s menu from your phone, pay online and the food is brought out without passing a card machine through multiple hands. The app’s founder Nav Sangha is a restaurateur, involved with SoSo Food Club (shuttered this year), Miss Thing’s and Otto’s Bierhalle, so he has skin in the game. Dozens of restaurants, wine bars and breweries are using it including Collective Arts, Bar Raval, Imanishi Japanese Kitchen and Rhum Corner.
Bottle shops and alcohol delivery
Ontario has puritannical liquor laws in comparison to our neighbours in Quebec. Buying booze became a bit easier thanks to widespread alcohol takeout and delivery being offered at bars and restaurants. This was initially a pandemic initiative to help keep bars and restaurants afloat but in December, the province made it permanent. Bottle shops popped up everywhere, selling exciting wines and craft beers you can’t get at the LCBO. Instagram accounts like Skip the LCBO and Bottle Shop Toronto make it easier to find and support shops near you.
With indoor dining prohibited in June, Toronto launched this program to help save restaurants and bars by carving out space on on sidewalks and curb lanes for extended patios. Outdoor dining may have been the only option but CafeTO added an energy and buzz to the city’s neighbourhoods, even when it continued into the fall. Currently on hiatus during the lockdown, it’s slated to continue until April 2021.
Allison Gibson set-up a community fridge at Paintbox Catering and Bistro.
Community fridges and mutual aid programs
Volunteer-run community fridges keep popping up around the city, they’re near Pape and Gerrard, at Adelaide and Niagara, in Parkdale, in Regent Park and Little Portugal. The fridges are maintained, sanitized and refilled regularly by a network of people in the neighbourhoods. A community solution to hunger that comes without shame and one answer to rampant food insecurity. Along with concerned residents, local restaurants leave cooked meals and fresh produce. Some people even go on grocery runs specifically to fill their local community fridge. There was a conflict with their fridge in Parkdale when the city threatened to fine the landlord of Black Diamond Vintage, the store hosting it, due to an outdated bylaw.
Eating in green spaces
One of the things I envy most about Europe and Montreal is how gathering in green space is deeply embedded into the culture. This past summer, any vacant corner of green was occupied with picnic blankets, a basket full of goodies from a local shop and not-so hidden alcoholic beverages. The parks were teeming with people on weekly picnics with friends and celebrating birthdays. The “park hang” became one of the only ways we could catch up. Other than some concerning mishaps (that day at Trinity Bellwoods) it was lovely to see so many people outside together. I’ll be dreaming about dinner al fresco on a sunny patch of grass at Christie Pits until next year.
New Dundas West spot West Side Maria’s is doing Italian for takeout.
Courtesy of West Side Maria’s
Ghost kitchens and food pop-ups
Ghost kitchens like West Side Maria’s at Bar Mordecai, Tokyo Sando & Chicken and JapaSando & Co are part of a new crop of restaurants that have no physical space and are only available through online orders. Chefs like Adrian Forte and Dustin Gallagher and Flo Leung got creative and hosted pop-ups and weekly dinner series to continue doing what they love. Forte’s Yawd is an ode to Jamaican food with a French culinary twist, think jerk coq au vin. Gallagher and Leung’s Noble House is a fun new kitchen-studio-dining room-workshop serving Cantonese-style roast duck dinners with smashed cucumber salad and fried rice and 12-hour smoked beef rib dinners.
Courtesy of MLSE
Spotlight on food insecurity in Toronto
The most important food story this year is the growing awareness of food insecurity and the actions from within the community to try and curb it. The Toronto Foundation’s Toronto Fall Out Report found that 30 per cent of Torontonians are struggling to pay for their rent, mortgage, food and other essentials. Grassroots mutual aid programs like Uplift Kitchen and This Way Up Collective are working to feed food insecure households and those without housing. Food Share Toronto’s Paul Taylor and The Daily Bread Food Banks’s Neil Hetherington have been all over the news lately talking about projections for 2021. Back in April, Scotiabank Arena transformed into a giant kitchen to assist vulnerable residents and frontline workers. The bottom line is food security organizations will need more help to feed Torontonians going into the new year.
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