Skip to main content

As Tony Di Marco shuffles around baskets of Ontario peaches and moves fresh-cut flowers out of the scorching summer sun, beads of perspiration form on his forehead. Day in, day out since 1974, he has been the hands-on owner/operator of Harvest Wagon, a shop selling some of the finest selections of produce and imported dried goods in Toronto.

Harvest Wagon is part of what has affectionately become known as the Five Thieves -- a group of specialty food purveyors that occupies historic real estate on Yonge Street running just south of the Summerhill LCBO. The other thieves include Pisces fish shop; All the Best Fine Foods for breads, cheeses and prepared meals; Olliffe for meat; and Patachou, a patisserie on the corner.

Beloved by local residents and gourmands alike, the Five Thieves are a defining fixture of the neighbourhood.

They have the bygone charm of a European marketplace, and the merchants place a premium on quality.

But the area is not impervious to change, and there is speculation that upcoming plans to revivify the strip will have the most dramatic consequences yet.

The building's current landlord, Woodcliffe Corporation, plans to restore and renovate each of the retailers, which will likely have to be housed in a temporary location during their individual transformations.

One of the thieves is packing up entirely, to be replaced by a boutique bakery chain; and Pisces, which is presently attached to the back of Harvest Wagon, will be reoriented to have its own storefront on Price Street.

Also in the works is a new development that company president and CEO, Paul Oberman, will not yet disclose.

Naturally, the news has the Rosedale rumour mill churning. While stirring one of Patachou's frothy cappuccinos, actor Eugene Levy, a long-time Rosedale resident, couldn't be more matter of fact: "I've always said that once the Five Thieves go, there's nothing to do but move."

Mr. Oberman insists that "under no circumstances is the Five Thieves breaking up," but the impending changes have brought increased rents.

Already Patachou has chosen to reject the new lease. It will be relocating into a vacated pharmacy one block south in November.

"It is bittersweet," says Robert Sidi, who opened Patachou in 1982. "It was terribly emotional at first, and now it's extremely exciting. I did not choose to move just to move; the circumstances were such that we thought it was time for us to make a move and settle in for the next long haul." Having applied for a liquor licence, Mr. Sidi will be trying to woo evening diners as well as the croissant-and-coffee customers at his new location.

Just how steep is the increase? Woodcliffe's executive vice-president Mitchell Cohen is tight-lipped about what the tenants will be paying. But while Pisces, Harvest Wagon and Olliffe have agreed to the new terms, All the Best Fine Foods has yet to sign. "We have to grow and become part of this development and we still have to be able to afford to do it," says the store's president and major shareholder, Jane Rodmell. "Food is not like high fashion. People expect [food]to be affordable and with the high rent, I don't think you can operate a store the way we [do]"

Moving into Patachou's former digs will be the second Toronto location for MBCo -- the up-market bakery chain from Montreal -- according to Ida Lipreti, director of operations.

Its presence only further confirms a regentrification of a larger section of Yonge Street, which runs from Crescent Avenue to Woodlawn. Though much has already changed around the strip -- the former CBC headquarters has become a Staples; luxury condominiums have arisen, and the old CP railway station has been converted into the province's most luxurious liquor store -- the Roots Home store (which just shuttered its Avenue Road location) and Roots Yoga will anchor a new complex between Roxborough and Rowanwood in November. The third floor will be occupied by a salon called Colourfield by Rita Renouf.

The Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas has gone so far as to designate the stretch "Rosedale Main Street."

Currently chaired by John Begley, general manager of the LCBO, the Rosedale Main Street BIA will be installing new lighting fixtures, planters and banners by the end of the year. "I think many of the proposed changes down the road are going to beautify the community," he says.

Still, it is the Five Thieves that have patrons and purveyors feeling anxious about the neighbourhood's fate.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that, regardless of me leaving or staying, this block will survive," says Mr. Sidi. "Right now, I will not bet my money on it."

Chestnut Park Real Estate agent Jimmy Molloy is considered a connoisseur of Toronto's culinary scene. "I would be very concerned if All the Best left; I think the crab melt has saved me many a time when I've thrown parties," he quips.

More seriously, he points to the rapport he's established with each of the merchants. "There's something important about continuity. Everything comes down to the relationships you have with the proprietors who know what you've purchased for the past five years."

Mr. Cohen is quick to clarify that Woodcliffe's plans have been a long time in the making. "We've been redeveloping this project since the mid-eighties and it's been a labour of love and we only have one shot to do it right.

"We're plotting to make sure we keep the proper mix and it's a great mix," he adds.

"I think it's normal for people to be apprehensive about change," Mr. Oberman says. "I think we've shown by our track record that the changes we've brought about have been good and our goal is to raise the bar and everyone benefits from that -- not just the retailers in terms of their sales, but the customers as well."

Olliffe's owner Amos Bomze is concerned about the impending construction, which he fears will make customers feel less safe to shop and may force him to increase his delivery service.

Harvest Wagon's Mr. Di Marco worries that the mess and noise will turn customers away as it did during the LCBO overhaul. Yet he points to his abundant array of produce as proof that he's ripe for more space. "We have 28 varieties of tomatoes; we need a store just for them," he says.

If the worst consequence of the expansion is an extra layer of dust, it can easily be washed off. "Most of the customers have been coming for years and years, and they're not even customers any more, they're friends," Mr. Di Marco says. "They grow with us as we grow with them."