How Toronto bars transformed to survive the pandemic

Bars and restaurants morphed into bottle shops to pay the bills, but these new businesses are also expanding palates and pushing for alcohol reform


It’s hard to imagine going back to a Toronto without bottle shops.

Personally, I’ve started taking it for granted that I can order my favourite lambrusco (a lightly effervescent Italian red wine) and have it delivered directly to my door. Before last year, I would have to shell out top dollar to drink it with a meal at a sit-down restaurant. 

Bottle shops have introduced a new variety of options from producers all over the world, the kind of drinks usually unavailable to the public through the LCBO. They’ve instilled a sense of exploration and discovery among wine and beer drinkers, with hundreds of previously hard-to-buy bottles available.

“One of the most common questions I’ve had from guests over the years is how they can get the bottles I’m serving them,” says sommelier and Vela beverage director David Ouellette. “I rarely work with wines available on LCBO shelves, so the answer is almost always that they would need to buy an entire case from an agency. This is an investment few are willing to make and a process so foreign to most that they tend to just settle for the LCBO offerings.”

With access to those hard-to-get wines, bottle shops have made it easy for consumers to find good natural wines, orange wines and local Ontario producers that aren’t stocked at LCBO stores. 

However, this rise in bottle shops is intrinsically linked to the fact that many restaurants and bars are floundering and need a leg up to stay in business. 

At Grape Crush, which used to be the restaurant SoSo Food Club, partners Nancy Chen and Thomas Masmejean call their bottle shop a “lucky strike” that they would be bankrupt without. 

“A few days into the shutdown, it started to sink in. People were wondering about their jobs, we had so much stress about paying rent, it was a nightmare,” said Masmejean. So, they turned a wine series called Grape Crush that Masmejean launched in October 2019 to get people interested in fun, unconventional wines into a pop-up shop. In the first 10 days they sold 1,000 bottles. 

A complete behaviour shift

The proliferation of bottle shops all over the city is a direct result of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the hospitality industry. It’s never been a secret that they rely on the revenue from alcohol sales. Restaurateurs and bar owners campaigned hard in the days immediately following the March 2020 lockdown, stating that takeout and delivery alcohol sales would be integral to survival. 

On March 26, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario announced that restaurants and bars were legally permitted to sell alcohol with food takeout and delivery orders. The city’s bars and restaurants soon levelled up from only offering bottles with those orders to become full-fledged bottle shops. 

“A year ago, when we had to shut down, we were sitting on quite a bit of inventory. Without the loosening of the alcohol sales laws, we would’ve had all of our money tied up, so that’s definitely been helpful,” said Ann Kim, one of the co-owners of Donna’s, a laid-back restaurant on Lansdowne. 

To make Donna’s competitive with all the other bottle shops popping up, the team had to keep prices as low as possible and become less reliant on profits from alcohol sales. 

It’s not just wine enthusiasts who are taking advantage of bottle shops. Vidal Wu, Donna’s beverage manager, says prior to the pandemic they catered to a narrower wine audience with niche tastes, but they have since expanded. 

“I wanted to create a program that was a little more accessible and more legible for consumers,” Wu says. “If everyone is opening bottle shops, I feel like our play can be making that product more accessible, available at a low price and helping guests navigate a list without necessarily having to have a wine background.” 

Chen sees a complete behaviour shift in the way people are purchasing alcohol. Options are now available across the street and around the corner, and people are being a bit more adventurous. The LCBO tends to favour wines that will sell and appeal to wide audiences, but bottle shops can offer greater variety. 

“The LCBO is less likely to take risks and bring in unique wines from obscure regions or flavour profiles that are outside of the norm,” she says. Bottle shops have spoiled us so much that Chen doesn’t believe there’s any way to turn the clock back to pre-bottle shop Toronto. 

“People have really expanded their palates,” she says. “It would be difficult to go backwards.” 

Bottle shops accelerate ethical purchasing

In December, former sommelier and now wine sales representative Yuuji Nagaoka launched a website called BottleshopTO, a directory organized by neighbourhood. 

He realized most bottle shops were advertising on their Instagrams or directly to people who already frequented them and he wanted to expand their reach. 

As soon as the second wave hit and patio season was officially dead in the water, Nagaoka noticed a surge in new bottle shops. There are currently 52 shops on the list and he’s constantly updating it. 

“It was a new thing for everyone. I thought it would help everyone and benefit the industry if there was one place that people know where to go to find spots near them.” 

Ouellette runs the Instagram account SkipTheLCBO and advocates for modernization of Ontario’s liquor laws. He launched a petition in February, asking for a 25 per cent reduction on the markup that licensees pay to the LCBO, essentially lowering their alcohol costs by a quarter. “Our industry needs a lifeline before we see its complete collapse,” he said. 

According to Ouellette, slim profit margins lead to lower wages and worse working conditions for hospitality workers. The industry is used to relying on tips, but people aren’t tipping as much at bottle shops.

Ultimately, Ouellette is pushing for wholesale pricing for bars and restaurants but believes quick action is needed. “The 25 per cent decrease would allow businesses to hire back their laid-off staff, to invest in safety measures and to pay off their debts.” 

Ouellette also noticed a trend towards ethical purchasing, which he believes is being accelerated by bottle shops.

“People are developing a moral conscience when it comes to the alcohol they consume. The reckonings of racism and sexual inequality we’ve seen over the past year have thankfully begun to spill into the beverage world and bottle shops are operated by people whose careers benefit from being on the forefront of this moral movement.”

He notices people are asking for products from producers who are environmentally friendly and who aren’t mistreating workers and they’re looking for Black-owned wineries and female winemakers.

Over at Dundas West wine bar Paris Paris, Krysta Oben has found regulars are still coming to pick up bottles or ordering online. She considers Paris Paris lucky to still be open and stresses that although the new legislation has helped to keep the lights on, it’s only just been enough to keep them afloat.

“It was horrible, letting the whole staff go. It was not at all what we thought we’d be doing coming into our third year in business. The safest thing to do was just have it as a bottle shop and have one person working at a time.” 

The reality is you don’t need as many people to run a bottle shop as you do to run a fully functioning wine bar with a whole kitchen staff. Their sister bar in Parkdale, Nice Nice, opened in early 2020 and was temporarily closed in December. They’re banking on patio season to come early so they can open it up again. The space is currently being used as a pop-up for the Hamilton brewing company Fairweather. 

Down the road from Paris Paris, the Grape Glass space, which Oben runs with Nicole Campbell, was meant to host Grape Witches events. They signed the lease a week before everything shut down and it’s now running as a bottle shop for the foreseeable future. Oben is still grateful to get to connect with people over wine, although not necessarily in the same way as before.  

“It’s great to be able to communicate with people about wine and share the great wines that we love, in a different way than you would in a wine bar,” she said.

“People in Toronto are really thirsty and engaged and love supporting new places. The industry is fucked right now but I don’t think it’s going to be stopped. I think people will be still ambitious to open new bars when they can again and bring that fresh energy.”

Read more

The best new bottle shops in Toronto

The best new breweries in Toronto

@kelseyxadams

Kelsey Adams, Richard Trapunski and Krysta Oben discuss the shift to bottle shops on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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