disgraceland toronto closed

Toronto bar known for its vegan comfort food locked out by landlord

Another day, another Toronto institution knocked off the map by COVID-19 — or rather, by a combination of the pandemic's economic impacts and inadqeuate protections for local businesses against "greedy landlords" (Doug Ford's words, not mine.)

I'd tell you to stop by and say a proper farewell to Disgraceland, if that were possible, but it's not. The Bloorcourt Village mainstay was abruptly shuttered on Monday after 13 years in business.

The decidedly punk vegan restaurant and dive bar — the first of its kind back in 2008 — didn't get a warning, either. Owner Shawn Disgrace only found out that his business had been booted from its longtime space after it had already happened.

"I got a text message on Monday morning saying I've being terminated," said Disgrace to blogTO on Thursday. "I went over to the bar to see what's going on. The locks had been changed and there was a notice on the door saying that we can't enter the building anymore."

Adding insult to injury, all of the menus, flyers, and carefully-placed LED lights in the window were ripped down later that same day and replaced with a "FOR LEASE" sign.

Disgrace said he was told he had one week to get his stuff out from the space, which has served as a community hub since it first opened in 2008, hosting not only bar and restaurant patrons, but protest afterparties, election nights and benefits for various animal and human rights charities.

"My life has been ripped away from me, and I'm terrified of what’s next," said Disgrace, who was a travelling musician and DJ before he opened his bar. "From 2008 until now I've had Disgraceland... I'm screwed. I don't know what to do."

Even if he could get the space back, Disgrace says he wouldn't be able to afford it. He was already behind on rent when his landlord locked the door, and has been using his own personal CERB cheques to cover bills, insurance and pay his employees for months.

"The rent is too high for what this climate is," said the business owner, who noted that turning a profit on takeout meals alone had proven impossible.

"We had to close for most of the time because it just wasn't financially feasible to open," he told blogTO. "You only sell less than $200 some days, or less than $100, and you still have to pay bills, utilities, staff, food costs... it's cheaper to close."

For whatever reason, his landlord opted not to apply for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program (CECRA), which sees the federal and provincial governments give commercial landlords 50 per cent of their regular rents while tenants pay another 25 per cent.

Disgrace feels that the government failed in how it implemented the small business relief program, specifically by putting the choice to participate in the hands of landlords.

"How can you complain about not getting paid when you just couldn't be bothered to apply for government funds? Why wouldn't you want that? Why would you take zero money when you could get 75 per cent?" he pondered by phone on Thursday.

These are questions many people — including a host of politicians — have asked since the program first launched and reports started rolling in of landlords who wouldn't apply to help out their struggling tenants.

After urging building owners several times to "do the right thing," the provincial government resorted to banning commercial evictions in June. The move saved countless local restaurants from going under... at least until the ban was lifted on October 30.

Disgraceland is one of the many iconic local businesses that have fallen so far during this second major wave of restaurant evictions.

People all over the city are worried about what this means for Toronto's unique culture, Disgrace included: "I'm scared for what's going to be next, and for all of my friends along that street," he says. "A lot of people in the neighbourhood are pissed off and pretty upset."

The restauranteur worries that Bloorcourt could eventually go from cool local strip into a row of Tim Hortons, McDonalds, Taco Bell, A&W and Mr. Sub franchises.

While he maintains that Disgraceland won't reopen ("I'm so in debt I don't know what to do,") Disgrace is still trying to make a difference so that the other local businesses all around him might be saved.

"I'm just scared for everybody. I've contacted Doug Ford several times saying I've lost my business and I need help. I've gotten no return."

Perhaps the premier should spend less time promoting McDonald's french fries on Twitter and more time working to re-extend the commercial eviction ban that could and has already saved many independent businesses.

Just saying.

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez

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