“I’m preparing for a future where we will have dine-in service again”: Why one optimistic café owner is tackling a mid-Omicron reno

“I’m preparing for a future where we will have dine-in service again”: Why one optimistic café owner is tackling a mid-Omicron reno

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Dawn Chapman, the owner of Lazy Daisy’s café and restaurant in Little India, closed up shop in March of 2020, pivoting to takeaway and online grocery sales—her frozen buttermilk biscuits went gangbusters. Despite loosened restrictions throughout the various stages of reopening, she played it safe, never once opening for dine-in service. In December, Chapman decided it was time to start planning for a post-pandemic future and got to renovating—and then Omicron hit. Despite the latest lockdown, here’s why she’s focused on the future.

“I opened Lazy Daisy’s about 10 years ago in a former shawarma shop on Gerrard Street East. We weren’t just a café: we hosted poetry slams and musical open mics and also rented our space for private parties. It was a community café, whether that was someone in the corner working on their novel, a couple in the front sipping cappuccinos, or a family with young children gathered around the Thomas the Tank Engine table at the back of the restaurant. I grew up with a family farm, so for me, food has always been important, and communal. I love to provide the joy that comes with sharing a meal. But with Covid, we’ve been behind a wall for two years.

“In early March of 2020, we closed our doors, not knowing what would happen next—it was the right thing to do, and all our staff agreed. Like so many other people at the time, we thought we’d be closed for a week, maybe two. When that obviously wasn’t the case, I sat down with my staff and said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ My manager at the time, John, said, ‘Let’s start an online store.’ This was when people were lining up outside of big-box grocers for hours. He set us up on Squarespace. At Daisy’s, we already had eggs, butter, bread, flour—we sometimes had flour when Loblaws didn’t. So we put that all up for sale, plus other provisions like fresh produce, house-made jams and juices, pastries and finish-at-home meals. We also added an option for customers to click and donate any of these items to the local food bank. Our café menu and our hours were reduced, and we resumed takeaway service in mid-April of 2020.

“Our sales were split evenly between takeaway and groceries. I was delivering food myself: I got into my car and made online deliveries every day. To attract new customers, we signed up to more third-party apps in addition to Uber Eats. Money was coming in, but we were only breaking even. I figured at least the doors were open, people were employed, and in a small way, we were providing a service for the community. I can only think of that as a win.

“That wall I mentioned was a literal wall. Before we reopened, we installed a giant drywall and Plexiglas divider—covered in painted daisies, of course—to separate staff from customers who were coming in for their pickup orders. When the province moved into Stage 3, in summer 2020, we stayed in Stage 2, maintaining our online general store and takeaway business all through 2021. We actually never reopened for indoor dining.

“I knew that, eventually, I would need to welcome customers back inside. As the temperatures started to drop in the fall, Daisy’s celebrated a milestone 10-year anniversary, and indoor dining was once again an option. I had this sense that we needed to change. The space felt tired, and I’d been looking to grow and expand our buttermilk biscuit business into a frozen bake-at-home line. At the same time, on the weekends, we’d been having to turn off our third-party apps because our pickup and takeaway business was so busy and our kitchen was too small to accommodate. I thought, If I’m going to grow, I don’t want to open another location. I need to build a bigger kitchen.

“So, suddenly, it became: I’m doing a reno, and because the biscuit business is now a priority for me, I’m also doing a rebrand. I worked with a designer on a new logo, and an artist on a new sign for the café. I got drawings done for the new layout and connected with a designer, Tiffany Pratt, who masterminded a unique, vibrant and cozy dining space for the community to come back to.

“Of course, life threw us a huge curveball: we were set to close on December 29, and two days before then, I got an email from the contractor—who’s also a friend of mine—saying he couldn’t come in because he had Covid and was really ill. But we couldn’t push the reno back even if we wanted to. We’d been winding down for weeks and didn’t have any stock left. And besides, we’d worked the entire pandemic. My team was looking forward to a break; we all needed some time to decompress and regroup. The show had to go on. So my contractor sent in his demo team. Our manager, Katie, had her plumber come in. My husband and my dad are doing the framing. While my contractor recovers from Covid, we’re working with his electrician to keep things moving. Fingers crossed, we’ll reopen in March.

“Our new space will once again have tables for dine-in—the same tables we had before, which are made from barn board from my grandparents’ farm. The kitchen will be larger, and there will be a prep kitchen in the basement. But we’ve also had to build in Covid considerations to the new design: there will be a big glass partition between the baristas and customers, which will also feature a dedicated takeout window. Before Covid, whether you were eating in or doing takeaway, people would all line up together—it was quite tight! You could be eating your pancakes and the line might end up right beside you. We can’t have that anymore. We’re removing the train table so kids aren’t sharing toys. And, of course, tables will be more neatly spaced out.

“If indoor dining still isn’t an option when we reopen, that’s okay. We’re getting a lot of support from the community, and our landlord has given us a rent reprieve while we renovate, which is a significant help. We know that takeaway works for us, and the buttermilk biscuit business is booming—I just started selling them at City Cottage Market down the street, our first wholesalers. I’m excited to welcome customers back into an incredible new space whenever we can.

“Before Omicron hit, I felt like things had normalized a bit. And even if it’s a year or two down the road, I’m preparing for a future where we will have regular dine-in service again. Yes, we will have some changes to the way things were before: people will have to sign in and be vaccinated, but we’ll work with it. Here’s the thing: everyone needs to eat, right? We’re always going to need to eat, and we’re always going to need comfort. And sometimes comfort comes from food. And I think, no matter what, we’ll provide it, in some form or another.

“When we started the demo, on December 30, one of the first things that came down was that drywall and Plexiglas barrier. It felt good to tear it down! I felt like I could breathe again.”

—As told to Rebecca Tucker