We the North (North York that is)

Restaurants on Yonge Street, north of the 401, are mobilizing in the face of the pandemic.

Restaurants on Yonge Street, north of the 401, are mobilizing in the face of the pandemic

Hyunjoo Chae, or Chae Kim as her friends call her, owns two restaurants in the newly created Willowdale BIA. She opened her first restaurant with her sister and a friend 16 years ago. (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 North York.

In the heart of North York is the iconic Yonge St., the busiest section of which stretches from the 401 to Finch Ave. With 800,000 people living within walking distance of this main street, it's a densely populated, bustling area. 

Economically, the pandemic has hit the neighbourhood hard. The 1,800 businesses in the area have faced closures, reopenings, and many have had to pivot to stay afloat. Among the victims: its restaurant industry.

Hyunjoo Chae owns two restaurants in this area: MeNami, a Japanese restaurant specializing in udon noodles, and Han Ba Tang, a Korean fusion restaurant. 

Like most restaurateurs, she felt the impact of the pandemic which hit two days before her 60th birthday in 2020.

"We had some signals from Korea as to what was happening in the winter before the pandemic," Chae said. "But we still didn't know what to do when it came here. This is my lifelong business since I arrived in Canada. We were in a dark tunnel. What should we do?"

As president of the Canadian Korean Business Association, Chae felt a duty to help not just her own restaurant survive, but those in her neighbourhood as well. Those in the Korean community and beyond needed assistance navigating government subsidies, and dealing with landlords. Chae felt there was strength in numbers and a need for local businesses to band together.

We need to have a strong voice when talking to the government. My neighbours are my family. We have to make sure everyone does well.- Hyunjoo Chae

At the time, Willowdale did not have a Business Improvement Area designation. In an effort to help small businesses through the pandemic and beyond, Chae joined the push to establish this group. The BIA was created in the fall of 2020. 

"We aim to help businesses survive and economically recover [from the pandemic]," said Willowdale BIA executive director Laura Burnham. "The first step was to help get restaurants involved with CaféTO and provide the coordination needed to help ensure a successful patio season."

The Yonge St. stretch between Finch and Sheppard Ave. is lined with over a hundred condos and 80,000 people are within a five minute walk from this main street. (Jennifer Williams/ CBC)

With 40 participating restaurants, the Willowdale BIA is now one of the most popular CaféTO stretches in Toronto. 

Chae agrees that CaféTO has been a huge success in this area. With the combination of patio extensions and now limited indoor seating, Chae says her restaurants have returned to their pre-pandemic earnings. 

Recovery, however, has not been so easy for everyone. 

Jane Jhung manages LeeNamJang, a popular Korean restaurant located on Yonge St., just north of Sheppard Ave. Her parents opened the business over a decade ago. The restaurant was hit hard in the beginning, losing about 90 per cent of its pre-pandemic revenue.

"It was not just the pandemic that was taxing, but due to staffing issues, the reopening process was very hard," Jhung said. 

With no one looking for temporary employment, Jhung had to step in and work double shifts. She also had to recruit her two sisters to help keep the business running. Jhung also joined the Willowdale BIA as a voluntary board member to help other local businesses and bolster the community.

Jane Jhung manages her family business, LeeNamJang, which first opened its doors in 1986. It moved to its current North York address in 2010. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

CaféTO and the reopening of limited indoor dining has helped financially, but the strain of the pandemic has forced her family to make a difficult decision.

At the end of this year, we're going to dissolve our business. The pandemic has been so hard on us, physically, emotionally and financially.- Jane Jhung

There are many different stories of recovery efforts in North York, as is the case across the city. However Toronto city councillor John Filion, who was instrumental in forming the Willowdale BIA, is looking toward the future.

"The area has been in a state of prolonged transition. Forty years ago it was like a small town" said Fillion. "But in the past year we've had two major breakthroughs. One was the creation of the BIA, and the other was that REimagining Toronto was finally adopted by the city council."

The REimagining Toronto project, which passed earlier this year, aims to transform Yonge St. into a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Among several changes, it will remove two of the existing six lanes of traffic and will widen the sidewalks.

This redesign is what the City touts as 'the beginning of a new, more liveable North York.'

Coun. Fillion admits there have been mixed reactions to the streetscape plan, especially from business owners like Chae, who is lobbying the government to help mitigate the economic loss from long term construction. 

That said, Counc. Filion is confident that this plan will make the Willowdale BIA strip a more vibrant main street.

"It could become much more of a destination for people in the neighbourhood across the GTA," Filion said. "Not just a place to catch the subway, but a gathering place which will be good for business."

In the meantime, North York restaurants continue to push forward through the pandemic, with the locals being a great source of support.

"There has been a lot of consistent support from the community. A lot of loyalty from customers, Jhung said. "We are very appreciative." 

"These are hardworking people," said Chae. "First and second generation Canadians working together. We have a great neighbourhood and the recovery in the Willowdale BIA is very, very strong."

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 Danforth and East Toronto community.

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