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Chef Ivan Castro (right) with husband and business partner Pedro Afif at the bar of their new restaurant La Bartola.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

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The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked grave concerns about the future of big cities. While a flight from density appears increasingly unlikely, the commercial streets that provide so much of urban vitality are under strain.

Health rules forced some businesses to close entirely. Others could remain open, but with dramatically fewer customers. In a number of cases, landlords refused to find common ground with struggling commercial tenants, leading to vacant store-fronts. Boarded-up locations are no longer rare in Toronto, even on prime retail strips. Some fear the only survivors will be major chain stores.

But even as many businesses struggle, others push ahead with plans to open locations or expand. These plans generally predate the outbreak or were delayed by it, but the fact that they are being pursued is a vote of confidence in the future of Toronto’s commercial streets.

Here’s a look at five businesses forging ahead during precarious times.

Annex Market

As the pandemic wore on, sales were booming at Annex Market. The business – a kind of amalgam of farmer’s market, grocery store, online shopping platform and delivery service – was working with smaller producers and building a clientele among people who wanted to support such operations.

Its Bathurst Street location was increasingly cramped, said co-founder Corey Berman, so a few weeks ago, the business moved to a location on College Street West with about five times the space.

The new venue is a converted church that used to be an entertainment space. With large-format events not imminently part of anyone’s plans, Annex Market was able to secure a lower rent per square foot than at its previous location, based on a revenue-sharing model.

“I think if the restaurant industry and a lot of spaces are going to survive, it’s going to be by moving from these very burdensome fixed-cost rents,” Mr. Berman said. “In Toronto in particular, right, in any type of property, it’s never been [a] very good position to be in as a tenant, and the power dynamic has definitely shifted.”


Mimi Lam, chief executive of cannabis retailer Superette, says her company is keen to open two locations planned for downtown Toronto as soon as possible. Even though the industry’s sales are not seasonal, she said warm weather means more people on the streets and a greater likelihood of walk-in traffic.

“If we had kind of a magic wand, we probably would have wanted to open beginning of June,” she said.

The timing of the launch is out of the company’s hands, she explained, saying it expects final regulatory approval any time for the planned Yonge Street location, and within weeks for the store on Spadina. These would join what is now their sole location, in Ottawa, with others on the horizon.

The company tried to renegotiate the leases, but was unsuccessful, Ms. Lam said. But even though restrictions related to COVID-19 slowed preparations, she’s confident the crisis won’t hinder business once they can open.

“Cannabis has proven to be in demand even during pandemic, and so it’s like cannabis is good in good times, cannabis is good in bad times,” she said. “That really gave us optimism in terms of our business.”

La Bartola

In the window of La Bartola, a plant-based Mexican restaurant setting up in Little Italy, is a message that speaks to the uncertainty brought by the coronavirus: “Opening Soon! (fingers crossed)”

Chef Ivan Castro said he and his partner got the location in February, aiming to launch on May 5. The pandemic promptly intruded, raising concerns about how to protect customers’ health, and delaying renovations and licensing.

“It’s a mix of everything, services being not available, us wanting to be responsible and distanced from other folks,” Mr. Castro said.

The chef and his husband and business partner, Pedro Afif, are now looking to open in the first part of July, assuming they can finish renovations, get the rest of their patio furniture and hire the right staff.

Under the rules of Toronto’s pandemic reopening, they will be able to use the back patio and put a few people on the sidewalk, but seat no one inside, eliminating nearly three-quarters of their capacity. Losing so many seats will make the business more financially precarious, Mr. Castro acknowledged, but staying closed has its own downside.

“Not operating, we are losing money,” he said. “So as soon as we finish everything, we want to open.”

Exercise Sports Movement Clinics

Around the time news of the novel coronavirus was trickling into the Western media, chiropractor Erin Saltzman and her husband, Matthew Porter, were locking down a new and much larger location for their Exercise Sports Movement Clinics, which offers sports medicine and rehabilitation.

Within weeks, the pandemic hit Canada in earnest. Potential bookings evaporated and construction restrictions stopped them from remodelling the new space as they liked.

By late March, other clinics could open for patients with acute and chronic issues. ESM Clinics didn’t have the venue ready. It wasn’t until the first few days of June that the new location in Forest Hill Village opened, said Mr. Porter, the clinic’s director. Even though nearly 850 people had died in Toronto of COVID-19 at that point, the clinic didn’t even consider waiting longer to launch.

Mr. Porter said they were keenly aware of the clinic’s importance to the health of their clients. So they put in safety measures – including prescreening for both staff and clients, temperature checks on arrival and mandatory mask and glove rules – and started taking appointments.

“Our entire month was fully booked, and that was just from people reaching out to us,” he said in late June. “So definitely a lot of pent-up demand.”

La Diperie

The coming La Diperie location in Harbord Village might already have been open in time for this summer had the pandemic not intervened. Then municipal approvals were delayed for the dessert spot, which has been in the works since last year. Many potential customers were feeling the economic pinch and the landlord wouldn’t renegotiate the lease. The company itself was a bit leery.

“To open during the pandemic was not the smartest thing to do, so we have waited,” said Sam Arif, brand vice-president at La Diperie.

However, he said that pickup and delivery were doing well at other locations of the franchise chain, which has about 40 outlets throughout Canada. And business is seasonal at a company that prides itself on the variety of things, from ice cream to pie, that can be dip-coated. About 70 per cent to 80 per cent of sales occur from April through October.

The company couldn’t wait too long and miss the hot summer months, when many people drop in for something sweet after dinner. The location is set to open in mid-July, with the now-familiar rules restricting the number of people allowed inside a store.

“It changes a bit the ambience,” Mr. Arif acknowledged. “People make the best of it.”

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