We’ll see you in there.
Connect to customize your food & drink discovery.
Toronto artist and Artscape board member Benny Bing, and award-winning actor, choir leader and cookie impresario Craig Pike, came together to throw a block party around a brand new mural in Leslieville. Situated at the corner of Logan and Queen, on a wall shared by the eastside outpost of Pike’s rapidly expanding Craig’s Cookies empire, is Benny Bing’s “Life is Sweet” mural. The celebration brought together local food vendors, arts programming for kids, and small business owners to consider how the past relates to the community today. I had the opportunity to speak to Benny Bing and Craig Pike after the block party and mural reveal about the importance of building community through food and art, and of course, what cookies you just have to try at Craig’s Cookies.
Benny: Once we started slowly emerging from the lockdown, I started retaking walks. While walking through Leslieville, I noticed this great wall at the intersection of Logan and Queen, an old Starbucks location taken over by Craig’s Cookies. Graffiti had bombarded that wall to the point where Craig just painted it yellow. I thought it would be a great wall for a mural and a creative placemaking initiative—a way to rejuvenate a dead cityscape by incorporating arts and culture into community development. I put together a proposal for a mural that would include my OHSO painting from my “Women of Colour” series. It was one of my most popular paintings, with most prints sold out. The painting is based on an actual OHSO, a Somali-Canadian DJ living in Atlanta doing great things.
That painting was done in 2016 as a tribute to her. So I wanted to immortalize her on the wall. It’s also a historical wall in terms of Black history in Canada. Many escaped enslaved people who came by the Underground Railroad settled in Leslieville, and there’s a plaque maybe a hundred meters away from the mural commemorating that history. So I wanted to add more of a Black presence which speaks to that relatively unknown history within that space, and incorporate that with Craig’s Cookies colouring. Craig incorporates colours from the Pride flag in his marketing and cookie boxes. I used those colours in the mural and the quote “Life is Sweet” because it’s a friendly reminder after the pandemic that life is sweet. No matter what we’ve gone through the last two years, it’s more important than ever to be grateful for the sweetness of life and what we have.
How did Craig’s Cookies become involved in the “Life is Sweet” mural with Benny Bing, and what attracted you to the project?
Craig: Benny reached out to us a few months ago with this fantastic proposal to support the community of Leslieville through the arts. We connected and had an awesome conversation about the values we shared around community, inclusivity and diversity. I was immediately moved by the message and beauty of the mural. I come from the arts, so any way I can use the cookie company to create relationships within the arts community is essential. Growing up in Newfoundland, “community” is vital to the cultural narrative. I’d go to my grandma’s house, where there was an open-door policy where strangers might be coming off the streets looking for some food, and my grandma would always feed them. You would always see people for who they are and try not to judge or make assumptions about them. In high school going into university, I studied saxophone and also considered becoming a Catholic priest because I wanted to serve the poor and bring people together. When you bring people together, people can learn from each other, which leads to understanding and working together to ensure we’re all centring love in all our relationships—to the best of our ability.
Benny: We began the project in April. We finished it within five days because I was trying to complete the work when it wasn’t raining. I was blown away by how quickly I got this done, but I realized the community wasn’t consulted or involved in the design process. Consultation is customary with this kind of project, so I tried to brainstorm a way to involve the community in this new piece. While painting, I remembered passersby loved it because of the vibrancy it brought to the corner. I thought a block party with a mini pop-up party, a live DJ, and fun art activities for the kids would be a great idea.
Craig, what’s your connection to the arts?
Craig: I’m a Dora nominated actor, and I’ve been in 60 theatre productions across the country, including four seasons at the Shaw Festival. I also conduct a choir in the city called “That Choir,” which is celebrating its 15th season, and we’re a nationally recognized and award-winning chamber choir in Toronto. It’s relatively impossible to work full-time in the theatre in Canada, so I started selling cookies on my bike to try and pay my bills in between contracts in 2013. I opened the first location in 2018 on the same day I started rehearsals for a production at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. For the first couple of years until the pandemic, I was acting and conducting the choir while running my business. When the pandemic hit, theatres closed, and choirs couldn’t sing together, so I focused solely on the growth of Craig’s Cookies. Initially, we were only supposed to have 2 locations (Church Street and Parkdale), so I could have my career as an actor alongside that. I’m at a point now where I can start doing both again. I’m starting an arts organization in September called “that Arts Group” that focuses on theatre and choral music separately, as well as new work development programs for theatre and choral music with a youth educational program.
Do you see some connection between what you do in a kitchen with what a visual artist like Benny Bing does with paint? In what ways do you think your background in the arts informs what you do now?
Craig: I think that it’s all telling stories. We all have experiences with visual art and food that create great memories and a sense of nostalgia. I’d like to think that cookies can be provocative and start conversations that can bring people together in the experience of enjoying food. Benny’s and any other visual art can do the same. There are so many meaningful conversations being had right now around diversity, inclusivity and just politics in general that it’s also essential to have space for beauty in life as well.
Benny, why was this mural project so important to you?
Benny: This was a completely free project. I sit on the board at Artscape, where we team up with many developers to help artists get these kinds of creative placemaking opportunities. I wanted to lead by example as an artist on the board who also engages in these initiatives. So this is the first one I undertook with the help of Craig’s Cookies and the community. I wanted to support local small businesses because it’s not just about amplifying the arts but also increasing foot traffic to the neighbourhood. People stay around longer in beautiful environments and spend time with local businesses. The pandemic has been brutal on small businesses, so I wanted to help them thrive and succeed.
Who are some of the local vendors you invited to the Block party?
Benny: Nutbar, an excellent woman-owned business in Leslieville, opened up three months before the pandemic and had to shut down. So I wanted her to be a part of this. Pet Value, Artist Gabrielle Lasporte, handcrafted pet accessories and apparel designer Toronto Dog Moms were vendors. Amanda Hamer, the private chef and owner of Edible Bliss, sold her West Indian tacos and Jamaican rum cake cheesecake. My mandate has always been to inspire creativity in the next generation of artists. I teamed up with Raising Artists, a Toronto-based art education company founded by Artscape board member Alessandra Moretti that inspires creativity in kids. She put together a fantastic workshop for 108 kids who recreated my mural in their own way. They got a free cookie from Craig and ice cream from Ed’s Real Scoop around the corner. I’ve been getting emails from parents about how their kids were so inspired and want to create more. Hearing those stories is very fulfilling and affirms the importance of the event. I invited poet Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony to write a piece around the theme “Life is Sweet.” There’s a plaque on the mural with a QR Code that you can scan that will allow you to hear this amazing poem interactively while viewing the mural. The permit came on time, thanks to the help of Ward 14 councillor Paula Fletcher, a huge supporter who came and gave a speech at the party.
Any plans for future block parties?
Benny: I will definitely be bringing the block party to Regent Park next year. It will be great to have the kids in Toronto Community Housing experience this because we want to ensure that every child is included.
Craig, can you tell me a little about your plans to launch a food truck and when we can expect to see a cookie mobile on the streets of Toronto?
Craig: One of the great things about the arts is its accessibility to everyone. What’s exciting about this food truck is we can potentially bring our cookies to communities that didn’t have access to our cookies before—outside of the downtown core and communities around Ontario where folks may not be able to travel to Toronto regularly. We should have the food truck ready by mid to end of August.
Finally, Benny, the most crucial question goes to you. What’s your favourite Craig’s Cookie?
Benny: There are 2. The Twinkie cookie is basically crack. They barely make it, but when they do, it sells out quickly. I also love the Mars bar cookie. I can easily eat half a dozen each day of the week.