How a Toronto woman saved and expanded her business with the help of her sister
Toronto is home to a woman-run mini cafe empire that started out over a decade ago, and now has several locations where some of the first female chefs she ever hired still work.
Cafe Plenty is the brainchild of Melissa Patterson, who visited London in 2011 and was inspired by the gourmet cafes that were more than just coffee shops but functioned as meeting places with great food.
The first Cafe Plenty opened at 250 Dundas West in February 2011, modelled after places like Ottolenghi and Gail's Bakery.
Patterson develops most recipes for a menu of cafe fare like salads, sandwiches and baked goods herself, with support on fine-tuning from a few chefs.
Her mini-empire has now grown to four locations, but she's had to persevere through other locations closing in order to get here.
A 1 King West location that had opened July 2014 closed Feb. 2021, and a 333 Bay PATH location that opened Feb. 2018 closed in October 2022.
"Seemingly overnight, the impacts of COVID-19 obliterated our catering business and led to the sad decision to close 1 King West and walk away from our new commissary kitchen dreams," Melissa Patterson tells blogTO.
"1 King West closed in February 2021 after many exhausting, stressful attempts to generate sales despite the area being abandoned and having to contend with never-ending lockdowns. We took advantage of all the subsidies, but with no revenue coming in it was impossible to stay open."
She had to default on a lease on a small storefront with a big kitchen that was meant to fuel the catering component of Cafe Plenty, as catering business completely dried up.
Their PATH location at Bay Adelaide Centre survived the longest throughout restrictions.
"We had to close during the most severe of the lockdowns but we had officially reopened in February of 2022 and things were going well. However, that location was initially meant to be a pop-up so our lease at that point was month to month," says Patterson.
"We had hoped to stay longer so we could regain some momentum and then look to move to a new home in the PATH, but we were caught off guard when Brookfield asked us to vacate the premises immediately so they could put in a Starbucks. So, we were forced to close our old PATH location in October of 2022."
In the midst of that, a big change happened at the business: in December 2020, Melissa's sister Jenn quit her job as a CMO at an accelerator to join Cafe Plenty doing administrative work including managing growth and operations, with Melissa focusing on the food and front of house.
"Jenn has brought her 16-plus years of corporate strategy and marketing experience to help streamline operations and build a more solid foundation for the business," says Patterson. "We are a great team and we really love working together."
With her help, Cafe Plenty has been able to bounce back as a business and open more new locations again, opening at 1967 Yonge Street in December 2021, at 389 Danforth Ave. in July 2022 and at Commerce Court in January 2023.
"Folks starting to head back out into the world is what will truly allow us to keep going," says Patterson. "Honestly, another lockdown would have crushed us, both financially and emotionally."
Previous plans for growth focused on the downtown core and the catering business, but during lockdowns Cafe Plenty zeroed in on prepared meals with Melissa driving all over the city doing delivery.
"We pivoted expansion to local neighbourhoods with the goal of becoming an important pillar of their communities," says Patterson.
"This move was born from the realization that the Financial District might never come back to life so we couldn't wait and see, and we needed to go where our customers had gone - their homes and communities."
They've also now added third-party local products to their offerings of cafe eats, prepared foods and pantry goods to support the small business community.
"The look and feel of the spaces have evolved to feel a bit warmer, colourful and playful, all meant to create more welcoming neighbourhood spaces," says Patterson.
"While we've evolved our offering and expanded into different areas of Toronto, our mission has remained the same: to bring people together through really good food and coffee. Staying true to this mission means that we will always look and feel and taste like the same Plenty you knew and loved."
They're currently holding off on opening any more new locations for at least six to eight months, but beyond that their ambitions are to open five more locations over the next five to six years, with a goal of 10 locations across Toronto.
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