coffee shops toronto

This is how Toronto coffee shops are navigating the COVID-19 crisis

Coffee shops are part of Ontario's list of essential food and drink services, and rightfully so: without caffeine, society as we know it would likely crumble (even more so than it already is). 

But as the restaurant industry takes a massive hit, so too do cafes citywide as they struggle to make ends meet.

Amidst health concerns and looming rents, cafes are faced with the difficult decision to remain open and sell cups of coffee and snacks to-go, or close up shop and find other methods for profit. 

Unlike the closure of many eateries in Toronto, shuttering a cafe can have far greater social implications: coffee shops by origin are community hubs fuelled by coffee beans, and not being able to grab a cup at your favourite neighbourhood hang can be a big blow. 

Olivia Peters, owner of the Scarborough fixture The Birchcliff, says it was painful to close up her shop on Kingston Road, especially since she was on the verge of launching the new location just four doors down. 

"We want to be open," she says. "Everyone's been asking... but it's really hard to start a new chapter in the middle of a plague. It's really sad." 

The cafe, which has been open since 2016, is a neighbourhood gem in an area where indie coffee shops are far and few between. Since closing the shop due to coronavirus, Peters has moved all their equipment to their new location at 1680 Kingston Road, which was slated to open around this time until conditions in the city got worse. 

Like many cafes in Toronto are choosing to do, Birchcliff is now doing whole bean and ground bean deliveries of their espresso and drip coffee, with no extra fees and no real limit as to how far Peters or her brother are willing to drive.

For Rooster Coffee House owner Shawn Andrews, delivering beans to their customers has been a "strangely uplifting" experience. 

"It gives us the kind of hope to go thorough with it," she says. 

Andrews closed all three locations of the Rooster in mid-March, temporarily laying off 30 employees across the board.

Since then, she's been doing contact-less deliveries of beans like their Rooster signature blend from Pilot to people all across the city, who text her personal cellphone from morning until 11 p.m. at night. 

You can't order coffee online yet — Rooster doesn't have an online shop yet — but Andrews says that she's prioritizing deliveries first. 

"People who don't know how to use the Internet, those are the people most vulnerable. Those are the ones we're thinking about." 

Meanwhile, those cafes that are remaining open are doing the most they can to leverage the huge decrease in foot traffic. 

The cafe and cocktail bar Voodoo Child, a College Street fixture for more than seven years, is down to around 10 to 20 per cent of usual revenue, says co-owner Jason Gormley. 

"It’s out of necessity more than anything else at this point that we’re open," says Gormley. "We need a business to come back to on the other side of this, and even just doing takeout at this point, it buys us another week." 

Aside from taking extra health precautions, Voodoo Child is now selling beans plus coffee, snacks, and booze, to help move their big inventory of wine and beer. 

"We feel that the government is in the place to dictate the response and they've deemed us an essential business at this time. When there comes a time that list shortens, then we are obviously going to oblige." 

Gormley says they've also gotten a positive response from community members, who, though more cautious than ever, have shown appreciation for the sense of routine that the cafe provides. 

"It's something that normalizes their situation, and that's a good thing." 

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez

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