It’s the great irony of Toronto’s street-food scene: People like food trucks, and pop-up restaurants, and festivals dedicated to mobile eateries, but in very few instances are they able to freely enjoy the food in the way it was intended. Case in point: food trucks are still in legal limbo (they’re allowed on private property, but, largely, not city streets), and it doesn’t seem like pre-packaged fruit salads at food carts are taking hold in the city. Indeed, in Toronto, it’s actually hard to find street food on the street.
For the past three years, however, Market 707, an outdoor food court set up on the sidewalk outside the Scadding Court Community Centre at Dundas and Bathurst, has actually been serving street food. The market, comprising 11 shipping crates, each occupied by a food vendor (and one bicycle repair shop), is open every day for lunch. The rent is cheap and so is the food. The City is actually on board and trying to replicate this elsewhere in Toronto. And yet, for some reason, it hasn’t caught on with the same frenzy that food trucks and pop-ups have enjoyed over the last couple years.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, Scadding Court’s manager of development and community engagement, Nikki Toten, waits for her Americano at the market’s I Deal Coffee/Monforte Dairy container. It’s fairly quiet, with the odd passerby glancing at the different menus—one features East Coast-inspired donair burgers and poutines; another grills up Japanese skewers. Further down, dim sum, rotis, Korean rice bowls, and chicken pot pies are on offer. No two vendors are allowed to have the same menu.
The idea for the market came in 2009, after the community centre’s executive director Kevin Lee and program director Herman Ellis Jr. volunteered in Ghana and noticed that shipping containers were used as storefronts. “The area between Bathurst and Spadina [on Dundas] was a bit bleak,” says Toten. “You’d walk by a fence, a parking lot, and a wall that was Scadding Court. That was it. We’re bringing together shipping containers, and these ideas, for people who don’t have the capacity or the funding to start their own business.”
Using shipping containers as low-budget, makeshift food stalls isn’t a new idea. In recent years, the concept has popped up in cities like San Francisco, Montreal, Atlanta, London, and New York. There was nothing like it in Toronto, however, so Lee and Ellis called Ward 20 councillor Adam Vaughan with one basic question: How to get started.
“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” says Vaughan. “We’d been working with Alexandra Park, the Toronto Housing Community, and the United Way on how to revitalize bad planning from the ’50s and ’60s that left a lot of orphaned space [around Dundas and Bathurst]. This animates public space, creates business opportunities, and it functions as a way for entrepreneurs to start a business in the city in an environment that can be very expensive.”
Problem was, Vaughan didn’t really know where to start either. He and his staff brainstormed the departments they’d have to consult: public health, parks and rec, business licensing, public realm, right of way—the list kept growing. Eventually, in the spring of 2010, they decided to, in essence, just go for it. If a city inspector brought up a violation, the vendors would give them Vaughan’s business card and tell them to call the councillor.
And they did. The health department showed up, for example, saying sinks were required for food vendors. They got them installed and eventually got the other departments on board. “Visit by visit, we basically batted each of the issues off the table while continuing to build a vibe and a love with the staff. Everyone started to celebrate it, rather than regulate it,” says Vaughan.
In stark contrast to the disastrous Toronto a la Carte program—in which vendors had to shell out $30,000 for the cart itself (most shut down because they couldn’t make their money back and one vendor went bankrupt)—or the tens of thousands of dollars required to buy a food truck, the rent for the shipping crates at the market is just $16 a day (including electricity) and start-up costs are first and last months’ rent.
One of the survivors of the a la carte program, Simon Kim, whose family’s Korean street-food cart Kim’s a la Carte is still operating at Yonge and Finch, expanded to Market 707 two-and-a-half years ago. “We can cook more here than in the cart,” he says. “We have electricity and a fridge. We have a rice cooker. We can start a business here with not a lot of money.”
But a major problem remains: The market isn’t drawing in the crowds that were expected. For one thing, it doesn’t have the same buzz as a food truck or a Toronto Underground Market event. “It took a lot of patience to continue to stay here,” says Kim. Indeed, a few vendors, like Sloppy Bunjo, camel-burger shop Casbah, and Dundas West bakery OMG Baked Goodness, have since come and gone.
“It’s definitely been less solid than other markets,” says Monforte Dairy owner Ruth Klassen, who has had a stall at the market since it opened three years ago. Monforte now shares the booth with I Deal Coffee to help pay the bills. (Klassen says they haven’t sold enough cheese.) Regardless, she’s not moving out.
“I just think this is the right thing to be doing, I’m not ready to quit yet. It’s a cool model and it’s important for the city to morph this way since conventional real estate is so expensive,” she says.
On May 10, the centre will host an evening food and music fest to help raise the $14,500 needed to build a patio on the southeast corner of the building. It would be situated a bit further away from the noisy intersection, not to mention the hospital across the street, whose blaring ambulance sirens can interrupt a peaceful lunch. There’s also plans to build an outdoor stage for events and add covered seating. (Currently, customers just keep on walking when it’s raining.) This summer will bring the addition of two more containers and, in future, there’s hope of creating a “container mall” of 30 containers in the parking lot mixing food and retail.
To carry the concept further, Market 707 organizers are working with Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute to make the market a replicable model for other areas of the city. First up, the Centre for Spanish Speaking People at Jane and Wilson, where shipping containers will be installed on a nearby parkette in the next few months.
“I think it’s ahead of the curve,” says Klassen. “Traffic will come; just look at the food trucks. I can’t afford to lose money forever, but when you believe that you’re doing something good, it’s important to stick to it. People just have to think outside of the box.”