Community

This made-in-Scarborough-solution has helped restaurants during the pandemic

“Everyone loves a good story”, said local owner La-toya Fagon. "And charity goes a long way"

“Everyone loves a good story”, said local owner La-toya Fagon. "And charity goes a long way"

La-toya Fagon opened her Scarborough restaurant space for private parties, with a limited capacity, when the province moved into Step 3 of its reopening plan. (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 received incredible community support.

The CBC Toronto community partnership series Serving Up Change makes its next stop in Scarborough. 

When the pandemic hit, restaurants in this east end area were hit hard. Not only did owners face the traditional challenges of adapting to takeout and opening patios, but according to owners, this area had its own unique challenges.

Scarborough native La-toya Fagon has been a chef for 17 years, and is the owner of Twist Catering. Originally located in Toronto's west end, she had finally moved to her hometown neighbourhood in the Sheppard Ave. and 401 area and had just completed a large renovation, only to be closed down by the pandemic in March of 2020.

In what should have been an optimistic time, Fagon faced the biggest challenge of her career.

"I came back to Scarborough because I want to keep it on the map, it's where I'm from. I want to put money back into Scarborough," Fagon said. "But the pandemic forced me to pivot from catering to providing curbside pickup. And the people in Scarborough didn't know about my business, unless they were existing clientele. It was very hard." 

Fagon quickly realized that she needed a vehicle to tell her story, so she turned to social media, which she described as her "best friend" and primary source of promotion. However, her social media savvy is not shared by all east end owners. Promotion and awareness became acute concerns for many restaurants during the pandemic. 

"We have fabulous restaurants in Scarborough but the biggest challenge is getting the word out and telling the story of these restaurants," said Toronto City Councillor Jennifer McKelvie (Ward 25, Scarborough-Rouge Park). "Some restaurants are tucked away in strip malls and in some cases, you can't see them from the streets; so they really rely on word of mouth."

McKelvie also noted that many restaurants don't have websites or email addresses, and many have issues with a language barrier. 

Cue FindDining.ca, a made-in-Scarborough, City of Toronto initiative and website that aims to highlight the area's cultural diversity through food. 

"We're telling the story of food and the people behind the food in Scarborough," explained McKelvie. "We know that people are connected to these restaurants because of their stories, their owners and the amazing rich diversity of food they are offering. We're trying to get that story out there."

Fagon is the official chef for Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival. As part of the festivities, the local councilor and mayor visited her restaurant in May of this year. From left to right: La-toya Fagon, Councillor Jennifer McKelvie, Mayor John Tory, Chef Howard Seivright, Azalea Hart. (photo provided by Twist Catering)

"Everyone loves a good story," Fagon said, whose own story was featured on FindDining.ca earlier this year. "And Find Dining is all about supporting local."

Another story featured on FindDining.ca is of Imran Ali, owner of Northern Smokes, located on Old Kingston Road.

Ali opened eight months before the pandemic hit. He decided to switch to the curbside takeout model and opened seven days a week.

Imran Ali opened his Old Kingston Rd Halal BBQ restaurant eight months before the pandemic hit in March 2020 (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

Ali's ability to pivot paid off, but what he really credits the survival of his business to: community support and the unexpected benefits of philanthropy.

"We did charitable work around the GTA and that actually helped us promote our product, although it wasn't the intention. We were working with these groups that had never tried our food, who would bring it to their families", Ali explained. "So it was like a big circle. We were giving out 1,500 meals at one time, not because we had to, but because we wanted to. Our staff volunteered. What you give out, you're going to get back."

Ali’s children help prepare 1,500 charity meals. Northern Smokes donates meals to Penny Appeal and Islamic Relief. Both charities support people in need throughout the pandemic and beyond (photo provided by Northern Smokes)

Ali said after his eight year old son distributed food in Trinity Bellwoods Park, he came back with a whole new understanding of what people are going through. 

"He had his eyes opened. It made me happy to see my son realize that we are more fortunate than others and that we have a job to do to give back."

Kindness is a common thread in the positive stories coming out of Scarborough; the notion of give and take.

For Fagon, her contribution to the community is feeding five families, every Friday, for free. 

"I've been so blessed that my business remained open. I feel the need to give back," said Fagon. "If you look at the motels along Kingston road, those are filled with families with kids whose parents lost their jobs. The more money I make with my business, the more I put back into my community." 

One of the many strip malls located in Scarborough. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

Now that Ontario is firmly in step 3 of the province's reopening plan, what's next for Scarborough?

Not only will it survive, but it will thrive, according to Counc. McKelvie. 

"I think our restaurants in Scarborough are going to come back stronger than ever," said McKelvie. "I have seen amazing innovation among the owners."

As for Ali, he's cherishing the positive moments that have come with reopening.

"We've been blessed because our community has been supportive throughout," Ali said. "It's been nice to see families get together, saying that they haven't seen each other for eight or nine months. It's been a privilege for us to feed them and to be part of that memory."

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 North York community.

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