Every week a new online food business pops up in Toronto.
Back in March 2020, out-of-work restaurant chefs and home cooks experimenting in the kitchen during their newfound, lockdown-induced free time started selling meals of all kinds via online businesses.
Some are industrious people whose hours were cut when restaurants pivoted to takeout and delivery. Some are falling back on passions to make a living, and some are just having fun and seeing where things go.
One thing is for sure: there are more options than ever for Toronto food lovers.
Whether it’s refreshing grandma’s old recipes, fusion cuisine or creating new concepts from scratch, a lot of these businesses are selling comforting food: pizzas, pies, desserts, empanadas, patties, pasta and more.
Many are run by one person who does all the cooking, social media outreach, recipe testing, administration and accounting, website upkeep and deliveries.
“So many entrepreneurial cooks are trying to make their own business because they don’t want to sit around for a year and do nothing or just work 10 hours a week doing takeout. They have the creative drive and the opportunity to work on things that they find interesting,” said Jess Maiorano of Pasta Forever.
Maiorano was working as the pasta chef at Woodlot when it went out of business in early March. She started looking for a new job when it became clear COVID-19 was spreading at an alarming rate. She scored some shifts in the kitchen at Paris Paris but then the government-mandated shutdown began. The wine bar shifted to bottle shop-only and let go most of its staff.
Pasta Forever started out of necessity. Maiorano was making small batches of fresh pasta, selling through Instagram and delivering about 10 orders a week on her bike. Now her whipped ricotta and black truffle tortelloni or gnocchi with parmesan cream sell out within the day and she’s reaching 100 weekly orders.
She hasn’t met any of her customers but her regulars have ordered consistently since week one. There was a definite learning curve figuring out how to go from restaurant-style cooking to creating food that’s easy to deliver.
“I didn’t think it was going to become my full-time business,” she says. “It wasn’t until September that I realized that it’s not going anywhere. It’s not my little side hustle anymore.”
The growth happened mostly organically, through word of mouth and social media. She even launched pasta-making classes and although limited by their virtual nature, she has people tuning in from across Canada, the United States, Europe and Dubai.
As her customer count grew, she expanded the menu offerings and rented kitchen space. “I started doing deliveries on my bike and now I have a delivery driver who’s going out to Mississauga and the Beaches and up to Lawrence to drop off orders.”
She has plans to hire another person to keep up with demand after the summer.
Maiorano has no desire to go back to a restaurant job, unless she owns the place. The pandemic has afforded her the time to reflect on the exploitative labour practices the food industry can perpetuate.
“Honestly, working in a restaurant is gruelling, especially for cooks. We work 14 hour days, we make less than minimum wage and we don’t get breaks. It’s an insane lifestyle,” she said.
“No one needs to work that hard for somebody else. I wouldn’t go back to a restaurant unless all the rules were changed.”
With Pasta Forever she sets her own hours and although it can feel like her work week never ends, she feels fulfilled to be working for herself.
The rise of online food shops has also meant a rise in partnerships between chefs. Maiorano collaborated with Lucy Kirby of Breadhead on an Easter package that sold out immediately.
Kirby is a pastry chef and baker who returned to Toronto after four years in Vancouver. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best timing – she arrived a month before the first lockdown.
In the early days, she posted sourdough creations on Instagram and traded bread for tarts and other things from bakers, which helped her reintegrate into the Toronto food scene.
As interest in her cakes, bread, cookies and pastries rose, she changed the handle of her personal account and launched Breadhead. The rebrand was quite successful and Instagram referrals account for around 97 per cent of her business.
She’s seen a steady rise in sales, which have doubled in a month since she started working out of the White Squirrel coffee shop and her Monday drops regularly sell out. Still, she feels overwhelmed by the precariousness of her situation.
Many restaurant workers who started side projects while out of work are still struggling financially. Before Breadhead sales doubled, she was considering changing careers entirely and enrolled in a continuing education program at Ryerson. It wasn’t a feasible way to live and she was no longer receiving employment insurance.
“I’m already working around the clock and in order to expand I would need to be able to hire someone. But, in order for me to pay somebody a living wage I need to be able to make the sales and have a guaranteed demand,” said Kirby.
“What happens in three months from now when it’s summer? Will the demand still be there? I feel a little bit of instilled fear, knowing the industry and how the pandemic is all over the place. It’s hard to gauge where your business is going to be in six months.”
For workers like Kirby, who weren’t offered severance and don’t have savings to rely on, starting a fledgling online food business is all about survival. But it’s also about passion. Breadhead reinvigorated a love for the food industry that had been dormant. She says about 75 per cent of her previous work experiences were awful and she now realizes it’s because she wasn’t working in the right spaces or with the right people.
Similarly to Maiorano, now that she can choose how and when she works, she feels more in control.
And it’s not just professional restaurant workers flexing this entrepreneurial spirit.
Kennedy Sherwood is a York University student whose bake shop Knead It Baked took off in January. She’s been making 300 cheesecake-filled cookies (her specialty) every weekend since, and they always sell out.
She always loved baking but as a full-time student on the varsity soccer team working two part-time jobs, she didn’t have a lot of extra time. When she was let go from her two jobs at the start of the pandemic and the soccer season was put on hold, she rediscovered her love of baking.
“I didn’t think, ‘Oh, now that I have time I can start a business.’ It was more about having time to spend in the kitchen and bake for my friends and family.”
They started suggesting she sell cookies to make up for the lost income. She got some favourable press early on and all of sudden she had dozens of orders. She would sell out in 15 minutes and her inbox would be flooded with people upset they had missed out. She had to put a limit on orders because it was becoming overwhelming. Now, she’s got a handle on things and is managing the business and school.
Sherwood plans to continue expanding after exam season, and as her undergraduate degree comes to a close she’s thinking of moving beyond online.
“I’m not thinking of having my own bakery but maybe I could supply my cookies to other local coffee shops. I could start there and see where it goes.”
Whether it’s restaurant workers pivoting and finding new ways to succeed within the industry or home cooks who are entering for the first time, the rise of online food businesses will leave an indelible mark on Toronto’s food scene.