How Schitt’s Creek inspired this Toronto couple to walk away from a $300K job and open a corner store

How Schitt’s Creek inspired this Toronto couple to walk away from a $300K job and open a corner store

Owners Liana (centre) and Daniel (right) with Daniel's mother—and staff member of the month, every month—Elaine

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In August, Scarborough residents Daniel and Liana Naraine opened a 300-square-foot grocery store and coffee counter in Birch Cliff called City Cottage Market—despite having no food retail experience to speak of. While both had initially envisioned the store as a part-time project, it quickly consumed their lives, replacing one of their careers and filling just about every other spare moment. We spoke with the couple about how early-pandemic evenings spent watching TV led to the life-changing decision to open a corner store.

Daniel: I worked in software sales, mostly for companies based in Manhattan. When the pandemic hit, I was already working at home most of the time, so the transition was pretty painless. But after a little while, I didn’t feel like I was working at home—I felt like I was living at work. We’re fortunate to have a house that we really love, but being locked in a basement working all day—no matter what your work-from-home setup is—takes a toll on you.

The moment I knew I needed to make a real change happened in January 2021, when my mom called me and said that my grandfather, who lives in the U.K., had fallen off a ladder. She was understandably frantic and very upset, but my immediate reaction was to figure out how I was going to get off the phone with her to join a work call. Like, what the fuck was I doing? My mother had just told me that my grandfather was severely injured, and I was willingly choosing work over people who were important to me.

I had always dreamed of owning my own store. I have fond memories of going to Becker’s convenience stores when I was a kid; you’d go to get a pop or something, but it always felt more like a community hub, a place to hang out. I wanted to build something like that. During lockdown, Liana and I tried to make sure we both finished work by early evening so we could spend some quality time together on the couch, as opposed to working late into the night. We were watching a lot of Canadian TV shows, and Schitt’s Creek actually ended up being a huge kickstarter for me. As soon as I saw Dan Levy’s character open his own store, Rose Apothecary, it triggered me to start thinking about actually making a change.

The first thing I did was start a company called City Cottage Apothecary, selling small-batch soy candles—that was me dipping my toe in the water. When I was growing up, my mom always had candles burning in the house, and I’ve always been attracted to the way scent gives you a sense of place. I started making the candles myself, pouring organic soy wax into concrete holders I also made, eventually outsourcing the candles to a company in Innisfil. We still sell the candles at our store. I had also gotten really into home-growing, and I was wondering whether pivoting to a career in the cannabis industry might feel more fulfilling. Then, in May, one of our neighbours sent me a text—there was a retail space available on the same street as our house.

Liana: We weren’t immediately sure whether we should seize the opportunity—neither of us had any experience running a retail business. So we spoke to our families, especially Daniel’s dad, because he’s a very business-savvy guy. We were almost expecting everyone to talk us out of it: like, “You guys are crazy, why would you start a business in the pandemic?” Then, Daniel’s parents, my sister and my nephew came and saw the space, and right away, they were like “You should do it.” We ended up renting the space and we took possession of it this past June.

The store was basically a shell of a space when we took possession. We built a big deck at the front, and inside, we painted everything, did a lot of cleaning, built our counter space and shelving, and bought our freezers. After that, it was just decorating.

Daniel: We set a budget of $25,000 for our opening, which included renovations and initial inventory. In the end, we spent $26,100.

Liana: One thing that was highlighted for us during the pandemic was that there’s nowhere in our neighbourhood to just pop in and grab essentials or odds and ends. Last spring, when things were really bad, we had to choose between shopping at big box stores or major grocers—which meant waiting in long lines—or ordering from an online delivery a week in advance. The lack of convenience in the neighbourhood was a big driving factor for us, and we know that a lot of our neighbours felt the same way. We felt like we could fill a need.

Daniel: At one point I went into a Metro, and they had this tiny little cardboard box—like one foot by one foot—with some locally made products in it. It had a sign attached that said “shop local.” I was like, are you fucking kidding me? This is as good as you can do for entrepreneurs who are struggling? I knew we could do better—way better.

When I started doing product sourcing, I went in blind, so I depended entirely on word of mouth. Polina Privis and Tanya Dercach, who live close to us and used to own The Kingston Social, recommended Blackbird Bakery’s bread. Then I got in touch with Yannis Banks, who owns Fruitful Market, which is a mostly-organic, mostly-local kitchen and pantry on Carlaw. I’d never met him before but he seemed to share a lot of our values. I asked him if I could bend his ear a little. He invited us into his home and for 45 minutes basically said “Here’s what I wouldn’t do, here’s what I’d do a little differently, and here’s what I’d absolutely start with.” And it was people like that who opened doors one at a time, and we just kept walking through and looking around and being like, “Yeah, I believe in this product.” Right now, our brands include Come Back Snacks, Happy Pops, Chocosol, Crafty Ramen, Nude Market and Sheldon Creek, among dozens of others. And we source all of our produce through 100km Foods.

Liana: The first week we opened, we were both still working full-time, so we took a couple of weeks off. By the end of that week, my feet and knees were in so much pain, I felt like I was 60 years old.

Daniel: I went from sitting down all day and all night to standing on my feet all day. And I felt like an old man. Like Liana said, the first week here, I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t do this. What have I signed up for?” So I got an idea: I’ll call my 60-year-old mother! My mom is the type of person who’s usually a step ahead of everyone else, so she knew we might need some assistance—she basically said that having her help out was a no-brainer. She now handles the store during the day, from ringing in purchases to serving coffee and snacks to go. We get up early in the morning, take the dogs for a walk and go pick up the bread from Blackbird. My mom is at the store from 8:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon. Our regular customers love her. We wouldn’t be able to do this without her. She’s the perfect coworker, and taking on this project with family is really a blessing—we know we can completely trust her.

Liana: I’m actually still working full-time, in commercial insurance, in addition to working at the store. I’m mostly there on evenings and weekends, and I help with some administrative stuff, like accounting and inventory.

Daniel: We always intended to keep our jobs, but I quit mine in September—I walked away from a $300,000 salary. We make significantly fewer frivolous purchases now but we can still pay all of our bills, so walking away from my salary has really only meant that I’m buying less garbage. We’ve been open for three months, and I think we’ve done six figures in sales, which is pretty great for a little 300-square-foot shop, with next to no online sales—we’re old-school brick and mortar, and that’s exciting. We’re not paying ourselves. We went into this saying that, as long as our bills are paid, that makes us happy. The only person we pay is my mom.

Liana: We definitely pursued this as a passion project. And we’re pleasantly surprised by its success.

Daniel: The community has supported us tremendously. We have people that come in two, three times a day. And we’re building a trust factor within our community: we have five and six year olds coming in, and a few minutes beforehand we’ll have gotten a message from their mom saying their son or daughter is popping in with the debit card, and they’re looking for X, Y or Z, can you help them? Being welcomed in that way is a huge morale boost. It makes us feel like we’re doing something important.