It takes a village to raise up a restaurant
The 'Serving Up Change' series explores how communities are coping with COVID-19
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, are bolstered by incredible community support.
The CBC Toronto community partnership with the City of Toronto and CaféTO starts in Toronto's West End with Bloor West Village. This tight-knit, walkable community runs along Bloor, spanning from South Kingsway to Ellis Park Road. Its Business Improvement Area group (BIA) is one of the oldest in Canada and features more than 400 restaurants and shops, many of which are independently owned.
Meet Irem Sacakli and Serhat Sacildi. The couple came to Canada in 2017 from Istanbul, Turkey with the dream of opening a restaurant with an in-house design store. After viewing hundreds of potential GTA spaces, they found their "home", which is how they refer to their restaurant, Flame Food+Design.
Securing this location wasn't purely a business decision, as there were busier neighbourhoods, and areas with a larger Turkish population. It was the community that really sealed the deal.
"When we came to Bloor West Village it was very much like the place we were living in when we were in Istanbul," Sacakli said. "The people are so nice, and Toronto is so multicultural. The diversity is our richness."
Despite Sacildi's advertising and design background, they eschewed traditional promotion in favour of word of mouth.
Aspirational? Yes! It worked; after opening in late 2018, they had gained a healthy local following and were packed every night.
"Everybody likes and wants something sincere," Sacildi explained.
"We wanted to connect sincerely. And to surprise [our guests]," Sacakli added. "It is our pleasure to surprise our guests."
Flame Food+Design's concept was based on the idea that food is an experience that engages all of the senses, and that experience is meant to be shared. So, when you sit down for a meal, you will enjoy music, dancing, art, and collective stories. And you can also expect a hug, Sacildi's traditional greeting to patrons at the restaurant.
Then COVID-19 hit. After less than a year and a half in business, Sacakli and Sacildi's whole concept of authentic connection, and a shared experience, was upended.
Like most restaurant owners, they were forced to make changes virtually overnight.
"It was psychologically challenging," Sacakli admitted, "but in these COVID times, we have to find solutions."
Although takeout was against their original restaurant concept, the couple adapted and developed a takeout option. They also created different dishes, like putting a Turkish spin on a hamburger, which was more take-out friendly.
Despite the turmoil caused by the pandemic, people responded. Not only was takeout a success, but the community rallied in other ways.
"They would buy our design objects as a way of supporting us," said Sacildi.
"Some of our older customers would call and say, I'm not coming, I can't come, but I love and support you. One call is enough," added Sacakli.
It's an unbelievable neighbourhood and we are trying to pay back the kindness. If a person comes and says they can't pay, we say pay us next time. Of course they don't pay us next time, but that is how we do our part.- Irem Sacakli
Now, as we slowly inch toward normalcy, Flame Food+Design offers a patio extension on Bloor, as part of the City of Toronto's CaféTO program, in addition to their rooftop patio.
Sacakli and Sacildi are optimistic, even allowing themselves to dream about their next restaurant innovation.
"We are hopeful to repair the destruction of COVID," said Sacakli. "My dream is to have a restaurant where customers who can't afford it, can pay what they can. We need to create a system like that."
And for Sacildi, who's used to greeting his customers with a warm embrace:
"In our culture, we love hugging. Maybe we can't hug right now, but we can connect with our eyes, with our words. We can look forward as a community."
CBC Toronto's Serving Up Change series will run all summer. Stay tuned for more restaurant features from the West End and other neighbourhoods in Toronto. Next week, see how the Corso Italia neighbourhood is faring.