By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Toronto Council met on Thursday, June 15, to discuss the recent failures of the CafeTO program after much criticism from local businesses.
Many have expressed disappointment with the unpredictable nature of the program which was initially intended to help restaurants through the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the success of CafeTO over the past three years, the city requested a $285 application fee for CafeTO permits as well as a permit fee that costs $43.70 per square metre for 2023. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This corrects an earlier version of this story that contained incorrect information regarding the cost of the CafeTO application and permit fees for 2023.)
Although restaurants and bars already felt the discomfort of the high price tag to participate in a program that was once far cheaper, their problems with this year’s CafeTO didn’t end there.
Now, even for some of those restaurant owners who have reluctantly paid the funds to take part, there seems to be no sign of a reward for their financial contribution, said a local bar/restaurant owner.
Carl Pratt, owner of Beaches Brewing Company on Queen Street East in the Beach, is one of those individuals still waiting for official approval for a program he applied for in February.
“For me the annoying part is the absolute radio silence,” said Pratt. “Between February and now, there was absolutely nothing until the week before approval.”
Having paid about $2,200 – as opposed to last year when he paid about $500 – Pratt expressed frustration at the lack of accountability from the City of Toronto about the program’s failures in its email to him following a long period with no communication.
Pratt said that only recently did the city start asking for required documents and patio designs to complete the drawn-out process.
“I could have sent this to [the city] in February,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re just doing this now.”
Another strong critic of the program’s roll out this year is Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher who has been working with city staff to rectify CafeTO’s failures.
At Thursday’s meeting, Fletcher, along with Davenport Councillor Alejandra Bravo, introduced a motion that aimed to “ensure that the permits are issued well in advance of the expected installation date”.
“Though I’m relieved CaféTO patio installs are now underway in Ward 14 (Toronto-Danforth) small businesses across Toronto have reported many problems including slow application processing and poor communication from the city,” said Fletcher.
Along with better communication between local businesses and city staff in regards to the program, Fletcher’s motion also called for “consideration of whether any 2023 fees should be refunded or the 2024 fee schedule modified”. The councillors are also seeking additional financial support to help restaurants with the mandatory costs associated with patio installations.
Fletcher had previously called for the City of Toronto to cut the red tape, urging city staff to prioritize getting patios installed over administrative requirements.
This prompted the installation of CaféTO patios at approved locations regardless of what part of the application process they were on. This is due to the fact that many restaurants, such as Beaches Brewing Company, have lost revenue they would have earned on the outdoor patios (if they had been open) during the waiting period.
With a capacity of 80 people inside his establishment, Pratt was looking forward to the additional 40 patrons he could serve during patio season. However, due to delays, he said he believes that his restaurant has missed out on approximately $25,000 so far this season.
He said that only after mounting pressure from the community did he finally receive an email from the City of Toronto thanking him for his patience.
“I’m not being patient, I just don’t have an option,” said Pratt.
Another issue many restaurants are facing due to CafeTO’s delays is over-staffing. Most restaurants have to plan their staff schedules well in advance. Beaches Brewing Company, expecting to be well into patio season at this point, scheduled staff members for shifts that now do not require as many people as previously anticipated.
“So we’ve got more staff than we need on the roster,” he said. “We’re all sort of just sitting here twiddling our thumbs waiting for the city.”
Although Fletcher’s efforts have seen city staff expedite patio installations, she told Beach Metro Community News that “it was only a temporary fix”.
Her motion, which was amended to now include an option for automatic renewal of all approved permits in 2023 as well as “a business model for the delivery of CAFETO 2024 that would include a lead city division to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of this program to restaurants”, was unanimously carried at the Toronto Council meeting with four councillors absent for the vote.
With the City of Toronto promising that this year’s CafeTO failures will not be repeated in the future, local establishments are keeping their fingers crossed.
“I hope it gets better. I hope it doesn’t get worse,” said Pratt jokingly. “What would worse look like? We don’t get patios till July?”
So how can the City of Toronto avoid a repetition of their mistakes? Pratt advised that city staff should seek assistance from local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) when developing such a program.
“They’re trying to slap a one-size-fits-all solution here, but these neighbourhoods are nuanced,” said Pratt.
“There are a lot of little things that go on that the neighbourhood takes care of that the city has no clue about. So, I think having a more community-based approach is something that will help.”
Amarachi Amadike is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro Community News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.