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Jimmy Sobeck, the organizer behind the food co-op and collective Ossington Canteen, wants you to know they aren’t a food hall.
Although the food purveyors are all housed under one roof, they are all separate businesses working together and sharing space. It’s a one-for-all, all-for-one situation where coming up together takes precedence over competition.
“I’ll have to make a final call at times, but it’s very collaborative,” says Sobeck. “For instance, I’m talking with a guy who wants to become a member and we’re going to meet tomorrow to try and finalize it, but I’m also sitting down with the existing members right now and going through his menu. We don’t want to cannibalize anything other members are trying to do and have members fighting over the same customer.”
Sobeck relates the story of bringing the collective together.
“For a few years now, I wanted to do something with my passion for breakfast tacos,” relates Sobeck. “I grew up as a kid in Dallas, Texas, and while in grad school we would drive all over the state gorging ourselves on barbecue and breakfast tacos.”
Sobeck lived in New York with his Canadian wife for a year before moving to Toronto, and while in the Big Apple, Sobeck had the opportunity to try New York’s version of the breakfast taco, the breakfast sandwich.
“There were bodegas on every corner with all these convenience store items but also little kitchenettes where they threw together bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches you could pick up for four bucks and go,” Sobeck says. “In Texas, you’d stand in line in front of a taco food truck and they’d make the flour tortillas fresh. They’re not using mind-blowing ingredients but it’s high quality, flavourful and I always thought that if I ever got into the food business, that’s what I would want to do.”
After leaving a high-powered career in New York, Sobeck moved to Toronto with his wife after a global pandemic blew up all of their plans.
“I was about to open a restaurant with some guys I met but that deal got scrapped and my wife got pregnant,” says Sobeck. “We thought Toronto was a more liveable city than New York for our tastes so we just came here.”
Sobeck immediately tried to get to know Toronto’s food scene and was aided in that by a friend of a friend who used to work as an executive chef at Buca.
“He introduced me to the food scene and people here have been very kind to me,” Sobeck remarks.
“I was seeing all these chefs with restaurants starting little pop-ups where they were making Jamaican patties, British meat pies or Filipino food they grew up with,” says Sobeck of his initial meeting with one of his partners. “I came across one of them, Adam Squires, who owns Pies By Squires.”
After driving out to Squires’ home for a pie and taking it home to eat with his wife, the idea of collaborating on a space began to take shape. “I thought it was delicious, and I thought that it made sense to collaborate on operating a space instead of trying to do it on my own with the space that would be available to me.”
The modern bodega, coming into Toronto’s food scene at a time when sit-down establishments have had to shift to retail when they couldn’t serve indoors, seems like a hybrid model the pandemic has ironically primed the city for. In addition, with costs associated with running a successful restaurant and the additional baggage COVID-19 has heaped on the industry, without deep pockets, it’s a longshot any lone restaurateur can even make it. Collaboration makes sense.
"When you sit down and try to model a restaurant these days, you’re thinking about how many people you can seat and how often you can turn over tables,” Sobeck says. “The only way you increase that number is if you can somehow fit in more seats, increase the ticket size through talented people who push specials on expensive wines, or if you can get people in and out of the door faster. You’re not going to typically double your revenue inside one year but your rent is going up 3 per cent every year which, one 12-year lease later, becomes huge dollars.”
The expense of running a restaurant now has also impacted the ability of establishments to maintain staffing levels. It’s no secret that many restaurant employees opted out of the industry over the lockdown period due in large part to subsistence wages, long hours and stress.
“If you want to be able to employ good people and not be operating on the thinnest possible margin of labour where if one person is out, you’re in deep trouble, you need to pay well,” insists Sobeck. “To do that these days you need to have multiple revenue channels and some restaurants have done well despite Covid because it’s forced them to step back and figure it out. We’re sort of tapping into that ingenuity.”
At the time of this story, Ossington Canteen is still under construction, a testament to the additional supply chain issues magnified by the pandemic.
“When it comes to picking up supplies for our renovations, something that would normally be a two-week project becomes eight weeks during these COVID-related supply issues,” says Sobeck. “Even if I was trying to get fridges for the Front of House, our supplier would say we’d have to pick them up the same day because they’d be gone the next and we’d have to wait for another to come over on a boat from China or the US. Who knows how long that would take?”
The space itself was a churrasqueira chicken spot before being taken over by Ossington Canteen and needed a little love when they found it.
“For the first eight weeks after we took it over, we’d get people knocking on the door very upset over not being able to get their chicken anymore,” confides Sobeck. “People would walk into the building and yell at me in Portuguese.”
For the members of Ossington Canteen, it’s more about how they can be stronger together by creating a reason for customers to come through the door.
“Someone may not want a breakfast taco but they might want a cup of coffee and a pastry, or they may not want readymade hot food but they can get a frozen meat pie or a take-home meal kit from our open display refrigerators,” Sobeck explains.
In a world where “delivery” has become synonymous with survival for restaurants, the economics of delivery changes for the better as well.
“Two breakfast tacos and one coffee is not a very lucrative transaction, but if they want those tacos and coffee with a premade salad for lunch, some snack items and a meat pie for dinner, that changes things drastically, especially when focused on a small delivery radius,” Sobeck says. “We’re in the process of sourcing retail products for our shelves that we don’t make in-house and I have a pretty huge list of local and non-local items we’d like to stock.”
The space is big and has a basement that was intended as a prep kitchen, which the previous owner didn’t go through with constructing. It was already wired for a walk-in fridge. High ceilings, drywall, not dank and Sobeck figured they could fit a few more people in the space and have it be an all-day cooperative commissary kitchen. There will be a couple of tables with bar seating but everything will more or less be prepared as “to-go” items with a few exceptions. There will be no table service but you can eat your food there if you want or take it home. Currently, the membership includes Sobeck’s Republic of Tacos, Chef Ryan Campbell’s Gertie’s peanut butter pies, and Chef Adam Squires' Pies by Squires, with shelves stocked with items from other local food vendors.
“The best part for me has been meeting all these people and contributing to the community I serve,” says Sobeck, who lives just a few yards from the Canteen. “I enjoy trying to help these other people and I get the benefit of experience and camaraderie too. I wanted to work with people I like while representing a business and product I really care about.”