Running a restaurant in a "ghost town": Owners reflect on the pandemic

With community support, these downtown restaurants are looking ahead to a brighter future

With community support, these downtown restaurants are looking ahead to a brighter future

COVID-19 saw a dramatic drop in the number of workers, in all sectors, in the downtown core. During the height of the pandemic, the downtown employment cluster, which operates at 80 per cent occupancy in 'normal times', was operating at four per cent according to the Strategic Regional Research Associates. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

In partnership with the City of Toronto and CaféTO, CBC Toronto's Serving Up Change series is profiling business owners in five neighbourhoods across the city who, on top of innovating and working overtime, have incredible community support.

The CBC Toronto community partnership series Serving Up Change continues in Toronto's Downtown neighbourhood. This 17 square kilometre area is the financial epicentre of the city, the economic engine of Canada. 

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

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

"It was a ghost town," described Mark Garner, chief operating officer of the Downtown Yonge BIA. "It was eerie, with the lack of foot traffic in the heart of Canada's iconic main street. We would normally see up to 45 million people walk north and south on Yonge Street annually. At the height of the pandemic our foot traffic count was down 85% over the previous year."

Prior to the reopening of stores and indoor dining, in this "ghost town" city, many restaurants and businesses were forced to close. Along Yonge Street, vacant shops are a reminder of the ones that didn't make it. However, what marked the end of the lifespan of some businesses, proved to be a new beginning for others.

Kareema Beckles identified this opportunity — and took a chance.  

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

Kareema Beckles just put up a new sign in front of her downtown, Dundas East location. She says she is optimistic and the restaurant is here to stay. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

"Another person's loss was my gain," Beckles conceded. "It's heartbreaking for all the businesses that didn't make it."

Within months of opening, her front door was vandalized and her windows were smashed. Beckles had worried about crime at the Dundas Street East and Jarvis Street location. Despite her misgivings, her neighbours rallied around her.

"Once the community discovered my restaurant, I developed a few regulars.They told me 'try and stay and try to get through it because you're needed in the area, you have great food'."

Residents and neighbouring restaurant owners would even call her on her days off, to  let her know nothing had been broken or vandalized.That support, combined with prayer and faith, led Beckles to fully embrace her downtown Toronto neighbourhood. And she pays it forward by giving away one free meal a day to a community member in need.

"I come from North York but when I opened the business here, it became my community as well," Beckles beamed. "I'm a downtown person now."

For well-established restaurants like Salad King on Yonge Street, just north of Dundas Street, the client base is multilayered with the community at its core.

"Our customers are a microcosm of people who live, work, and play in the downtown Yonge area. So we have quite a mix of students, workers, and visitors," explained owner Alan Liu.  

With the onset of the pandemic, his clientele, mostly students and office workers, vanished. This left Liu with a deeper appreciation for his neighbourhood community.  

"We've seen less people on the street in the past year, so it's the locals that have really kept us afloat. The take-out and delivery business has been a lifeline," he said.

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

There are 175,000 people that live within a 10 minute walk of Yonge and Dundas intersection, according to the Downtown Yonge BIA. However, because downtown Toronto is a commerce-driven financial hub, it's unique to other tight knit communities throughout the city. 

"One of the most important things to build into recovery solutions is going to be more residential uses in the downtown," said Mary W. Rowe, President and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI). "More public space investments, so if you are working from home, you have a place to get out to." 

Rowe and CUI are behind Restore the Core, a nationally-coordinated research campaign focused on supporting the recovery efforts of downtowns all across Canada. Rowe says that building strong downtown communities and neighbourhoods is the key to a sustainable recovery. 

Garner from the Downtown Toronto BIA is hopeful, moving forward.

"Seeing that people are coming back to the neighbourhood, seeing shopping bags in hand, the the patios filling up, it's all very optimistic," said Garner. "If we stay the course with vaccinations, social distancing, and masks, then the fall is looking like a very promising time."

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

Lui is also working toward a brighter future, and is confident Salad King will recover. 

"We are hoping to get back to almost 100 per cent of where we were, but it won't be September, it might be some time 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 struggle is real. It's hard. It's very emotional," she  conceded. "My friend, who also owns a restaurant, we pray for one another. But, I am optimistic."

CBC Toronto's Serving Up Change series will run all summer. Stay tuned for more restaurant features from other neighbourhoods in Toronto. Coming up next: spotlight on the Scarborough community.

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