They may be sitting empty, but Toronto’s watering holes remain tapped into the hearts of local communities – or, more accurately, the stomachs.
With bars and restaurants shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some establishments are converting into grocery stores to stay afloat.
“We only really have Metro in our area. With the social distancing measures, the lineups are extremely long and people are leery of being in those public spaces. It was a natural fit for us,” says Janet Lourenco, area manager at Pauper’s Pub in the Annex.
Toronto bars and restaurants were forced to close on March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day – one of the busiest times of the year for the hospitality industry.
The closure left bars fully stocked with food and drink, but without any revellers to sell it to.
“We had so much stock that neighbours were looking for food, and we decided to start offering some of the products that we already had in house to our takeout menu,” says Lourenco.
A month later, Pauper’s still offers takeout and delivery, but Lourenco says that groceries and frozen meals, which can also be ordered online, now make up close to 80 per cent of the pub’s sales.
Other bars are moving into the grocery game, too. After the closure of its brewpub, Bellwoods Brewing has started offering prepackaged produce boxes out of its Ossington location on Thursdays. And the Riviera, a restaurant in the Toronto Island community, has closed its doors except for on Wednesdays and Saturdays when it runs an impromptu market.
The island has an ageing population and no grocery store. Residents have to take a ferry to the mainland to buy supplies – no big deal under normal circumstances, but a little more daunting during a pandemic. The Riviera market means that those trips don’t have to happen as often, especially since under new provincial regulations they can sell alcohol too.
“The fact that during this pandemic people can stay within their community and do their shopping without being exposed to the virus, it’s important,” says Fran Ford, an island resident who has welcomed the Riviera market.
Adds Jay Dimaline, one of the Riviera’s owners: “It’s a symbiotic relationship. We’re helping people and it helps us too.”
When news of business closures broke in March, the internet was flooded with advice on how to support local businesses. One common suggestion was buying gift cards – but with individuals suffering through financial uncertainty just like small businesses, parting with cash now for goods later is a difficult prospect for many.
These small-scale markets allow for a more mutually beneficial arrangement. Small businesses are feeling the support, while customers can avoid long lines and circumvent the overloaded delivery services offered by grocery stores. There are also unseen beneficiaries in food and alcohol suppliers that are desperate for business.
Laska Sawade, the general manager at Bellwoods Brewpub, says that the produce boxes have been a hit among essential workers who may not have the time to go shopping.
“We’ve had people reaching out who are frontline workers who are able to reserve a box, which is really nice to know that we’re able to provide that for them,” she says.
Lourenco says she’s never felt closer to the community than she does now.
“I’ve been doing this a very long time and I’ve never had such a personal connection to the customers,” she says. “It’s like we turned the clock back 100 years.”
The items that people are buying certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a bygone era. Along with produce, popular items include flour, yeast and beer. Under the pandemic, people are going back to basics.
That’s what Burdock Brewery is banking on with their own grocery-style offering. The brewery is delivering fresh bread from Blackbird Baking alongside their own beers. “Bread is something that people really, truly need – you know people truly need beer too – but it’s another thing that people can not go out to get that we can bring to them,” says Matt Park, owner and brewery director at Burdock.
The brewery also sells bread at its Bloor and Dufferin bottle shop, plus sourdough starters for those who want to try their hand at baking their own loaves, with the proceeds going to charity.
“We’re carbohydrate activists,” says Park. “We believe in gluten.”
Bellwoods has also started adding flour to its grocery boxes to accommodate high demand.
Lourenco says that by adapting, businesses can increase their chances of weathering the coronavirus storm. “We wanted to provide the service, cover our costs and have a business that is open at the end of this for our staff and our customers to come back to,” she says.
By providing a service now, bars can also attract customers that may return later. Ford says she will continue to patronize the Riviera when the crisis is over: “I have eaten there a bit, but I don’t actually drop in there for a beer. I would probably do that more often now,” she says.
And though the post-pandemic landscape remains uncertain, don’t be surprised if you find yourself buying some produce along with your pint when your local watering hole is back open.
“Moving forward, I would love to keep doing this,” says Dimaline. “Come in, have a beer, pick up some milk, bread – the essentials.”
“Everyone has been saying ‘we hope you keep doing this,’” adds Lourenco. “I think we’d be foolish not to.”
11 more Toronto bars and restaurants doing grocery delivery and pickup
This cozy Queen West cocktail bar was an early grocery convert. Pre-made pantry boxes are delivered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays or can be picked up in-store. Orders must be made in advance and the minimum is $40. 874 Queen West, 416-537-1928, motherdrinks.co
Normally serving upscale Italian food, Ascari now offers assorted grocery boxes, which come complete with recipes. Pickup is on Thursday at the Queen East location and on Friday at the King West one, both from 2 to 6 pm. Delivery is coming soon. 1111 Queen East, 416-792-4157 620 King West, 416-366-3673, ascarihg.com/groceries
This west-end chicken joint sells produce boxes for $50 and also boasts an on-site grocery, including homemade pickles and olives as well as marinated meats. Call ahead for availability. 1588 Dupont, 416-546-0626, lovechix.ca
A Queen and Ossington eatery, Montgomery’s offers custom food boxes, which can include everything from the staples to prepared meals, alcohol and sauces. Boxes can be delivered or picked up, but due to high demand Montgomery’s currently has a waiting list. 996 Queen West, 647-748-4416, montgomerysrestaurant.com
Earls Kitchen and Bar
This upscale chain offers a wide variety of curated food boxes as well as DIY cocktail and meal kits. Delivery is available through SkipTheDishes, and in-store pickup comes with a 20 per cent discount. 150 King West, 416-916-0227, earls.ca
Local Public Eatery
Known for its pub fare, Local Liberty Village has alcohol and corner-store offerings, including pre-made meal kits, grocery and bar mixes. Food and drinks are available for pickup, or through DoorDash for delivery. 171 East Liberty (#100), 416-901-8351 180 Laird, 416-696-6226, localpubliceatery.com
Odin Coffee Roasters
For the coffee lover, Odin offers a variety of beans but also bread, snacks, juice, beer and wine. Order online two days in advance for pickup or delivery within a specific zone. 514 King East 35 Bathurst, odincoffeeroasters.com
Another go-to for caffeine fans, Early Bird sells coffee, wine and deli-style foods. Delivery is available between Sherbourne and Keele, St. Clair and Lakeshore, on Tuesdays and Fridays. In-store pickup is on Thursday and Saturday from 1 to 3 pm. 613 Queen West, 647-348-2473, earlybirdeats.shop
Mostly known for its brunch offerings, Café Neon’s Wallace location has opened for contact-free grocery pickup. Pantry, produce and prepared foods are also available for delivery. 241 Wallace, 647-352-8366, @cafe_neon
Rebranded as Bottega Volo, Volo’s two locations have a wide variety of alcohol offerings and deli foods to go alongside. Takeout and pickup are available, with a $20 fee for delivery. 17 St Nicholas, 416-928-0018, barvolo.com/shop 612 College, 416-531-7373, birreriavolo.com/shop
Wvrst is allowing you to raid its pantry, with deli meats, cheeses, pickled things and sausages on offer. Pickup is available at the King West location, and delivery can be found on Uber Eats, Doordash and Ritual. 609 King West, 416-703-7775, wvrst.com
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