CaféTO, which has been popping up every evening in the Columbus Circle neighborhood since October, is set to become a permanent fixture, according to a proposal that will go before the Toronto city council on Thursday.
The “pop-up café” is one of several approaches by the Toronto design firm QMI to figure out a way to bring new restaurant options to the city after the closure of Cantina Laredo, a popular taqueria that opened on Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street in the 1990s. “After Cantina Laredo closed, we looked at what else was out there, and I’m sure the same happened in Toronto, where certain areas had restaurants, but no matter how you tried to explain that there were more alternatives, people just didn’t see them as viable alternatives,” said Catherine Vincent-Simons, director of experiential design at QMI. “We kind of looked at this concept of pop-up as that proactive format to try to make this category of restaurant concept more interesting.”
CaféTO currently serves Mexican food and has its own website, facebook.com/CaféTO , with plans to open a storefront of its own. But the pop-up café is what QMI is calling a “premium, seasonal, small business or pop-up,” one that aims to push the boundaries of restaurants in Canada and elsewhere. That includes a lineup of permanent catering options such as a pizza station and beer garden, and food truck tailgating options like tacos and more.
As with other pop-up cafés around the world, CaféTO has used events like a Friday-night open-mic night and Asian dance classes to provide food and space in the middle of Toronto. Each Wednesday, organizers hand out a strict list of the offerings – like vegan lunch or Filipino dessert – and keep the best food in the house until 5 p.m. to avoid customers being the only people at the restaurant at night. Even more unusual are the late-night sushi events, which seem to draw crowds often drawn by the event – but not by the food.
Vincent-Simons said the casual nature of the café resonates with consumers, but also with her team at QMI.
“We find that they’re people that work at restaurants, part of our work at QMI is designing design and environments for restaurants so they have the tools to actually run their own business,” she said. “For us it’s all about experience. One of the biggest challenges when running a restaurant is the experience. When you walk into a place, you want to feel it. You want to experience something new. CaféTO sort of represents that. You put on a pair of headphones and you’re sitting at your desk, and you can go and listen to music, and you’re actually going out and enjoying a really cool, fun environment, but it has its own energy that doesn’t have anything to do with your normal work environment.”
Organizers won’t disclose the total cost of the program – “it will be interesting to look at the numbers,” Vincent-Simons said – but they did add that CafeTO is “a very rare opportunity in the restaurant landscape for a premium, seasonal, small business or pop-up.” She added that it’s also a way to add innovation to Canada’s restaurant scene.
“In Canada there is a lot of super strong provenance in the industry,” she said. “They love to protect their heritage and we had to really embrace that, but we felt like there’s so much potential in what we were doing.”