At a meeting of city council’s executive committee this week, Kelly Higginson, of Restaurants Canada, gave Toronto politicians a much-needed reality check.
“I just want to remind the room that [at] this time last year our restaurant community was in lockdown for the fifth time,” Higginson said, referring to past pandemic restrictions that forced restaurants to limit service or close their doors — in some cases, for good.
This summer could be the first since the pandemic was declared that Toronto’s restaurants “might be operating with some level of normalcy,” Higginson told the committee.
Up for debate at the city committee were proposed changes to the city’s hugely popular CaféTO program that would impose new fees on restaurants that participate. Yet Higginson and her industry colleagues made clear in their deputations that it is too soon to begin charging restaurants thousands of dollars to participate in the program and warned that new expenses could decimate the program itself.
Though previously free, the city is recommending that businesses pay a one-time application fee of $865 to participate in CaféTO, in addition to an annual fee that would range from roughly $1,500 to $3,000.
On top of this, restaurants with curb lane patios would be required to invest in accessibility platforms to the tune of around $14,000 — or half that amount if they apply for a federal grant.
The latter requirement is a worthy and necessary investment, but restaurant owners say it is one they cannot realistically make at this time, even with the grant support.
“I submit that the report as written is too much too soon,” John Kiru, of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, told the committee about the city’s proposed changes.
The good news is that Mayor John Tory, who referred to CaféTO as “a pride and joy of the city,” appears to have gotten the message.
On Tuesday the mayor introduced a motion asking city staff to address the concerns of Toronto’s restaurant owners. Specifically, the motion requests that staff report back to city council next week with some options for potentially allowing restaurants a grace period until they are required to invest in the costly platform installations.
The motion also asks city staff to re-evaluate the proposed “fee schedule.” Tory said he hoped staff could provide a path to implement the changes in a “slightly more moderate way.”
It is a hope we share. After all, CaféTO enabled the restaurants to serve guests safely outdoors on sidewalks and curb lanes throughout the pandemic, generating, according to one study, $203 million in economic benefits to the city. It turned formerly dull main streets into vibrant destinations and breathed life into Toronto at a time of enormous loss.
Of course, the city should and must make CaféTO fully accessible. It is also reasonable that private businesses pay their fair share to operate on public land.
But if the city wants the program to exist, period, it has to account for the financial reality of an industry barely scraping by. The city’s hospitality industry is just recovering from lost business during the pandemic and is now struggling with staff shortages and inflation, which has pushed the cost of food skyward.
Under the new fees proposed for CaféTO, if the program doesn’t falter altogether, it risks losing the participation of the small businesses that make our streets interesting and lively, leaving only the chain restaurant patios (arguably the only businesses that can afford to take on the new fees all at once).
A grace period on the added expenses is warranted. It would be a shame if on the road to making CaféTO a permanent fixture on our streets, the city imposed barriers to its survival.