free times cafe toronto

This is how a 40-year-old restaurant has survived in Toronto for all these years

A Toronto restaurant known for its authentic Jewish food and lively entertainment is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary in the city, but the owner said it hasn't always been an easy ride.

Owner Judy Perly first opened Free Times Cafe in December of 1980, and she's one of the only woman restaurant owners that's been able to make it in the city's food industry for this long.

"I'm very proud," she said of the upcoming milestone. "I'm proud as a woman."

But when you've owned a business for four decades, as Perly has, you've likely encountered countless challenges along the way, and that's one of the reasons she said she's been able to make it through and survive the pandemic. 

"The whole thing is, what's different than me and let's say, other people who are facing this tragedy, is that I've already had my business destroyed five times before," Perly told blogTO

Over the course of the past 40 years, Perly said her restaurant was decimated by a fire, the introduction of the non-smoking law, the fact that tourists stopped coming to Toronto post-9/11, SARS, and two years of brutal construction on College Street.

As a result, she said she's learned how to constantly innovate and adapt to whatever difficult situation comes her way. 

Roughly 15 years after the restaurant opened, for example, Perly said she was looking for a way to draw in customers when she had the idea to introduce a Sunday brunch buffet with traditional Jewish foods and performances by Klezmer (Yiddish folk) musicians.

"Jewish people love to go out for Sunday brunch," she said. "I wanted to put a lot of soul into it, for my family and for my parents."

Now, 25 years later, there have been more than 1,000 Klezmer performances during Sunday brunch at Free Times Cafe, and Perly said introducing the weekend tradition was the first thing that made her really, truly successful. 

And it's that kind of thinking that has helped Perly get through the COVID-19 pandemic, too. Since March, the owner said she's already gone through roughly 10 different business ideas. 

First, she decided she would cater meals for Passover when the holiday arrived in April. And while she expected to sell around 100 meals, Perly said she ended up selling 650. 

Then, she introduced an online ordering system to make things easier, and she eventually started selling both Friday night dinners and Sunday brunches to-go.

Later, as establishments began to open once again, Perly and her team opened a retail store selling beer, wine and specialty foods to-go, and she also introduced a discounted, smaller takeout menu. 

And when that wasn't enough income, she started making and selling paletas (ice pops made with fruit and cream cheese) throughout the warm summer months.

Perly also catered Rosh Hashana and Thanksgiving dinners, and she filled antique glass jars she collects with grains and beans and started selling those, too. 

"Our focus was on reusing, repurposing," she said.

Of course, both the restaurant's indoor dining room and patio also opened and closed numerous times within this period, though both remain shuttered at present as a result of lockdown measures. 

But Perly is already onto her next project, and she said she's stockpiled about 500 dozen latkes in preparation for Hanukkah. 

And if all that sounds exhausting and difficult, that's because it is.

"It's been very, very difficult. The whole business, it's always difficult," said Perly, adding that she's had to put most or all of her own money into her business countless times just to keep it afloat. 

"A lot of people go into the restaurant business and they think it's going to be a party... [but] it really pushes you to the edge of your existence."

But when it comes to the pandemic, Perly said the most challenging part has been the lack of clear communication from the government directly to business owners. 

This, she said, has made it nearly impossible to coordinate the manufacturing, sales and service aspects of the business in such short time frames.

"The hardest thing is that there's no respect for this industry," she said. "We've never gotten direct communication. We find out what's going through the media."

When one of the required closures was announced, for example, Perly said she found out from the 6 p.m. news that she would have to close her doors by midnight that same day.

And yet, despite the constant struggles and frustrations that come with running a business for nearly half a century, Perly said she's found several ways to keep herself positive, sane and to ensure she continues to love what she does. 

"To survive in this business you have to become a spiritual person," she said. "Otherwise it'll just kick you in the face."

So, she she said she's taken up yoga, swimming and biking to help stay mentally and physically well. "And plus, cooking is my joy," she added.

Asked what her plans are for the restaurant's 40th anniversary, which is on Dec. 15, Perly said she hopes to set up balloons and a heater outside so she can hand out hot apple cider and maybe even free food.

And just in case you're wondering, the 70-year-old business owner has absolutely no plans to retire anytime soon.

"Why should I retire?" she asked.

And when this is all over, Perlsy said she hopes to be able to bring back the beloved Sunday brunch that started it all. 

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez


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