By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When the City of Toronto made the CafeTO program permanent in January of this year, the decision came with a newly implemented $285 application fee that was accompanied by another permit fee based on the size of the outdoor patio space that worked out to $43.70 per square metre.
Many restaurant owners were outraged and voiced disappointment that a program initially created to assist them through financially difficult times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was now adding to their stress.
It was probably no surprise then that in 2023, only 501 applications were received by the City of Toronto for the CafeTO permits – an almost 40 per cent drop from the previous year which garnered 837 applications.
“The rollout of the program last spring did not go smoothly – even Mayor (Olivia) Chow has acknowledged that,” said Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford. “When setting fees for residents and businesses, the city needs to ensure that people receive value for money and get the services they deserve.”
Bradford’s ward also experienced a decline in applications as just 56 establishments had a curb lane or sidewalk café this year as opposed to the 66 that participated in 2022.
Although of the belief that Toronto needs to establish “clear [and] predictable rules” in order to improve CafeTO, he remains optimistic in his analysis of this year’s results highlighting that “although city staff expected that 400 establishments would apply for a patio in 2023” as a result of the implementation of fees and other red tape, “demand was higher than anticipated and more than 500 applications were received”.
Restaurateurs on the other hand, like Danforth Avenu’s Red Rocket Coffee owner Billy Dertilis, aren’t as lenient in their critique of the 2023 CafeTO program.
“There were two angles for the change,” said Dertilis. “We had to pay for the space, and we had to pay for a barrier free platform. The platform was complicated because [restaurants] also needed to prove with an engineer stamp that it was sturdy.”
Dertilis told Beach Metro Community News that this created a significant burden that repelled many restaurant owners from participating in the 2023 CafeTO program.
At a recent news conference, Chow (who was elected Mayor of Toronto in a byelection in late June of this year) has vowed to rectify past CafeTO mistakes. She assured Torontonians that the city is taking steps to address coordination issues between officials which resulted in delayed platform constructions and slower application approvals.
“I am committed to working with city staff to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure CaféTO reaches its full potential as soon as next year,” said Chow in an Oct 16 press conference outside the Red Rocket Coffee on Danforth Avenue.
According to Chow, miscommunications between city transportation, economic development and licensing departments created uncertainties within the program. However, this issue will be resolved for 2024 by having a single department in charge –transportation.
Dertilis believes that no longer having two city departments working on the same project is “100 per cent” a benefit. He also emphasized that Chow’s proposal to pre-approve businesses that already participated in CafeTO this year will help keep those restaurants participating in 2024.
“I don’t know how many more restaurants or businesses are going to apply for a new application next year,” said Dertilis. “There was a 40 per cent decrease between last year and this year. I’d be surprised if there was even a 10 per cent increase next year.”
If his predictions are correct, then the City of Toronto should have a much simpler time rolling out next year’s program as he said “they have so much more time to deal with so many fewer applicants.”
According to Chow, to speed up next year’s roll out, new applicants can apply for the 2024 CafeTO program as early as January with a goal of giving at least 90 per cent of applications a decision on their application by mid-April.
Along with pre-approvals, 2023 CafeTO participants will find out their status for next year by Nov.20 of this year. City staff will then begin installing safety equipment on May 1 with patios expected to open by the Victoria Day long weekend.
The city’s initial plan for a permanent CafeTO program consisted of a one-time application fee of $865 that was then altered to a process that will see the fees gradually phased in over a three year period.
Considering this year’s failures that resulted in some applicants waiting until June for approval, and losing thousands in potential earnings in the process, conversations encouraging rebates have been popular amongst restaurateurs.
Earlier this year, Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher proposed a motion which called for consideration of refunds to 2023 fees or a modification of the 2024 fee schedule.
“There’s been some talk about that,” said Dertilis. “You’re not going to hear any business disagree with that. Any money we can get back would be welcome. But it doesn’t look like that will happen.
Dertilis suggested that a more feasible approach might be to delay “or slow down the eventual ramp up of fees moving forward” as application fees are scheduled to increase next patio season.
Chow’s CafeTO plans will be further discussed during Toronto Council’s upcoming executive committee meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 31.
“I’m glad the city sees value in animating the street,” said Dertilis. “Moving forward, I think what’s [important] is that the neighbourhood – streetscape – really becomes lively. That increases foot traffic and, in turn, helps businesses succeed. Especially given everything we’ve gone through during the lockdown.”
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.