Some of Toronto's best cheap eats are secretly hidden in obscure food courts
Toronto is known for the street food of Kensington Market, dim sum in Chinatown and trendy restaurants on Ossington, but you don’t often hear about our great food court eats.
In some of the city's sleepiest malls and food courts, you can find some of the most amazing flavours Toronto has to offer.
So what is it that makes these unusual spaces so great for setting up shop?
Chris Boodhoo of Tropical Joe’s says the business is “always brought back to malls by the flow of traffic”: from 150 up to 700 customers a day. He says a business can make money off that starting on their first day, unlike a standalone business.
Although he says the disadvantage of a food court location is paying higher rent for a smaller space, over 11 years in business he claims he hasn’t paid more than $1,000 for advertising.
There are also specific rules about what you can serve at a mall that have to be stated in a food court restaurant’s lease: for example, there’s a KFC at Gerrard Square so Tropical Joe’s can’t serve fried chicken, a staple in West Indian cuisine. However, he said this is what brought about the creativity involved in some of his other items.
Food court restaurants also have to conform to mall hours, meaning Joe’s closes at 6 p.m. on profitable weekend days, but Boodhoo says this actually encourages a better work-life balance in an industry notorious for overworking.
The key, however, is convincing those hundreds of mall-goers to make purchases. The success of these places seems to be determined by their insider nature: from talking with Boodhoo, it seems as though it’s about sharing knowledge not with everyone, but the right people.
An old friend of his now works as a real estate agent, and brings clients to eat at Joe’s, selling the neighbourhood by presenting the restaurant as one of its hidden gems.
So why food courts?
“The amount of immigration,” says Boodhoo. He feels the mix of cultures thanks to immigrants coming from all over the world gives food court vendors “an opportunity to do something people haven’t seen before,” resulting in delicious, fast, affordable and undoubtedly Canadian new takes on Caribbean, Chinese and more.
Fareen Karim at Tropical Joe's
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