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Since launching in May 2020, Bag of Toronto’s Derek Liu (left) and Nick Milum have partnered with over 120 businesses in eight neighbourhoods and distributed over $160,000 to the local economy.Tijana Martin

When the pandemic hit, Toronto resident Nick Milum, who was working as a financial analyst at the time, found himself working from home. “I had a lot of extra time on my hands,” he says.

Public health regulations had mandated that shops and restaurants close to the public, and Milum noticed how small businesses in his neighbourhood of Bloordale – around the intersection of Bloor and Dovercourt – were struggling. “There was definitely a growing sense of wanting to support local businesses,” he says.

Around the same time, he heard about small towns in Ontario that had developed local gift bags with goods from small retailers.

“I thought, why can’t that translate to a neighbourhood in Toronto?” he says.

It sparked the idea for Bag of Bloor in April, 2020: Milum would offer customers the chance to buy a bag filled with products from local cafés, restaurants and gift shops in the area. Purchasing the products from the vendors at full retail price, he would package and deliver them for free to customers.

Two and a half years later, Bag of Toronto has partnered with over 120 local businesses in eight different Toronto neighbourhoods, distributing more than $160,000 to the local economy.

’A way to celebrate during a dark time’

Realizing he would need help, Milum asked his good friend Derek Liu, an emergency room nurse working in downtown Toronto, to join him. The pair met in 2016 when they were both studying at McGill University in Montreal and volunteering for children’s non-profit Right to Play.

Liu says he was immediately on board when Milum told him about the concept. “I saw it as a huge way to celebrate Toronto during a pretty dark time when a lot of small mom-and-pop shops were suffering,” he says.

The duo started by cold-calling and e-mailing businesses to participate. Once they had about a dozen on board, they launched in May, 2020. “We put the word out on an Instagram page and posted in a few COVID support Facebook groups at the time,” Liu says.

The demand exceeded expectations, Liu says. “We capped the first [batch] at 20 bags. We thought we would just barely sell 20, and we sold 20 within that first day, easily.”

Milum and Liu worked out of their apartments, scheduling delivery for Saturdays and spending the days prior picking up products and packing them into paper bags. Business owners were grateful for the opportunity to sell products to customers at a time when they were prohibited from coming indoors, and bag recipients were equally excited about receiving a fun delivery during a bleak time.

One of Milum’s fondest memories is dropping off a bag for a friend’s great-aunt. She lived in a senior’s residence, and because of COVID restrictions, Milum had to leave the bag at the front door.

Five minutes after the delivery, he received a call from the recipient.

Nick Milum (centre) and team members package and organize bags for delivery to customers.Tijana Martin

“I assumed that she called because something was wrong,” Milum says. “But she was so excited about being able to get treats from the places she used to go to. She was really, really thankful over the phone.”

After that first successful run, Milum and Liu expanded the concept and now cover eight neighbourhoods: Bloordale, Bloorcourt, Ossington, College Promenade, Queen St. West, Riverside, Kensington Market and Oakwood Village. As part of their commitment to doing good, they also donate any profits from bag sales to local charities in each neighbourhood, like the St. Felix Centre in Queen West and Sistering in Bloorcourt, both of which provide services for at-risk and marginalized people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.

”For every neighbourhood that we’ve added, we have also done the research to find a charity that works with vulnerable populations within that community,” Milum says.

Discovering the city

At a time when small businesses are still recovering from the pandemic and now find themselves facing a looming recession, Bag of Toronto has been a valuable mode of promotion.

”We’ve had [owners] reach out and say, ‘I had a customer today who got my product in the bag and had never heard about me before and now they’ve come into the store,’ " Liu says. “That’s the ultimate ripple effect.”

This year, the pair is distributing another run of bags for the holiday season, available for delivery or pickup at a Bloorcourt café. For $65, customers can order five to six products from local businesses, up until December 13th at 5:00 p.m. They’ve sold over 500 bags for the holidays so far.

Milum says that running Bag of Toronto has helped him discover his city and feel like a part of the community. (He moved to the Bloorcourt neighbourhood from Montreal in the fall of 2019.)

”As somebody who had just moved here, it was kind of a bummer to not be able to explore the neighbourhood [during the pandemic],” he says.

“Each neighbourhood in Toronto is so distinct and has its own flavour of local businesses and art in different areas. I think that we’re showing that in these bags.”