Marc Buenaventura is looking forward to the CaféTO program this year as capacity restrictions and indoor dining closures due to COVID-19 have hit small businesses hard.
“We’ve been shut down pretty much more a year and a half now,” said Buenaventura, who is the chef and owner of iSLAS Filipino Barbeque and Bar at 1690 Queen St. W. “We’re registering and we’re looking forward to it.”
Mayor John Tory announced the opening of registrations for the CaféTO program for 2022 on Jan. 18.
The CaféTO program, launched in 2020, allows local restaurant and bar operators to expand their outdoor dining space onto the sidewalk and curb lane by expediting the application and permitting process.
CaféTO has helped many local businesses who have been hit hard by the pandemic stay open and get customers during periods of restrictions on indoor dining.
Buenaventura said the guests enjoy the experience of sitting outside in the sun while having a drink or a small snack.
“In terms of reaching out to the community, just because people are walking by, or biking, or driving by, it would catch their attention more,” he said.
Nick Kennedy, co-owner of Civil Liberties Bar located on 878 Bloor St. W., said building a back patio that could seat 40 people was “life-saving,” and it was also a great space for the community to gather.
“It really rejuvenated areas like Dundas and Ossington, it created sort of like a boulevard effect,” Kennedy said.
The CaféTO program also allowed the development of outdoor beach patios where all the participating restaurants on the street were able to bring food from their restaurants to the patio with a QR code system.
Poor Romeo bar and restaurant, located at 1029 Gerrard St. E., became a part of the patio on Gerrard East Market in 2020.
“CaféTO helped us that first summer with a little bit of ingenuity, being able to safely provide a service to our guests in the neighbourhood and beyond when we weren’t allowed to have indoor dining,” said Andy Wilson, co-owner of Poor Romeo.
Alicia Hibberd, general manager of El Mocambo, Toronto’s iconic live music and entertainment venue, said patios brought back “a sense of community” to Toronto.
Hibberd said CaféTO did not help their business exponentially because of the small 35-seat size of the patio, but it allowed them to keep their staff on and promote their business during the pandemic.
“It allowed us to employ some additional staff who didn’t have jobs at the time, allowed us to get the word out there to the public, and have a cool patio on Spadina where there weren’t any,” she said.
The smooth and swift rollout of the CaféTO program was appreciated by many local business owners, but some businesses have also faced problems.
Buenaventura said the unavailability of parking spots impacts accessibility to his restaurant as the patios sometimes take up parking spaces. He would like to see the city come up with a plan to tackle this issue.
He said their application was denied in 2021 due to ongoing TTC construction on Queen St. W., and they had to build a back patio instead.
Kennedy said that Civil Liberties also could not take full advantage of CaféTO because their patio was moved soon after installation.
“We also had a front-facing patio but unfortunately it only lasted three weeks because of the bike lane on Bloor project,” Kennedy said.
He added inclement weather and neighbouring businesses are large issues with running outdoor spaces.
The city is also offering a matching grant of up to $7,500 to cover 50 per cent of the cost of patio and other installations for the upcoming year through the CaféTO Property Improvement Program.
Buenaventura said certain improvements can be made to the marketing of various areas to different communities to make them aware of the patios and the local restaurants.
“There could be a little bit more promotion when it comes to certain areas,” he said. “I think that would help.”
While some local businesses are excited to register for the program this year, others are on the fence.
Kennedy said that their bar will register again this year to keep their options open in case of further indoor dining restrictions, but they have decided to offer “the best experience possible” in the same way they have for the last eight years.
“Once indoor dining resumes, we would not be doing a patio again because we can’t maintain our quality of service in the patio and the bar,” Kennedy said. “So we’ll give up the patio in a few weeks, hopefully.”
Hibberd said that although their experience with CaféTO was positive, the patio was never a part of the plan for El Mocambo.
“It’s something we’re looking into for sure. It depends on what happens with COVID,” she said.
Wilson is looking forward to things getting back to normal while adapting their business to COVID-19.
“As far as a COVID recovery plan, CaféTO was great,” he said. “Moving forward it’s gonna be huge in helping small businesses expand as rent gets higher and property taxes increase.”