“I couldn’t put my energy into Toronto anymore”: Why the owner of Northwood closed his Christie Pits cocktail bar and opened one in Mexico

“I couldn’t put my energy into Toronto anymore”: Why the owner of Northwood closed his Christie Pits cocktail bar and opened one in Mexico

Instead of charging $24 a drink to cover his rising costs, Richard Pope decided to do business elsewhere

Bartenders at a bar in Mexico watch a room full of customers while a band plays onstage
Photos courtesy of Casa Palmeta

Ten years ago, Northwood opened in Christie Pits. It was the perfect neighbourhood bar: it opened early and stayed open late. The bar staff were friendly, warm and skilled at crafting both late-night cocktails and midday coffees.

But then Covid hit. Northwood survived the first lockdown, then the second. In 2023, rents skyrocketed and, consequently, so did the price of cocktails. Instead of charging $24 a drink, owner Richard Pope made the difficult choice to close his bar. Now, he’s reopened it—but it’s called Casa Palmeta, and this time, it’s in Tulum, Mexico. Here’s how it all went down.

I often find myself dreaming it’s 2019 again. I wake up and I wish it was the before times, before everything fell apart. Northwood was a great bar. It was a success and so loved by the community. But lockdown was tough—every week, the rules seemed to change. I was really burnt out by the end of it. I’m an entrepreneur by nature. I want to create value in the world, but the pandemic felt like years of running in place, like we were stuck in a hamster wheel.

For the last decade, I dreamed of opening a resort in Muskoka. Even Northwood was a nod to that dream: a life by the lake. It never made sense financially, though. It was too expensive, a labour of love. Realistically, we would be full only two months a year. Nevertheless, I kept my eye on properties. Over the last three years, I watched them go from $1 million all the way to $4 million. So that dream faded away.

In the meantime, I was trying to keep Northwood alive. But, as a bar owner, how do you predict the future during a pandemic and plan cost spreadsheets when you have no idea what the variables are? How can you continue building a business when you have no clue if it will survive the next few months?

The courtyard patio of Casa Palmeta, a cocktail bar in Tulum, Mexico

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As my Muskoka dream died, my reality of running a business in Toronto started to fade too. We didn’t have the greatest landlord. Even during full lockdown, we paid him every dollar of our rent. We took on government debt so we could pay him, but he’d still text us all the time to make sure his cheque was coming. And when the lockdowns ended for good, he raised our rent by 20 per cent.

By 2022, I realized that to continue being a profitable business—and to pay myself anything as an owner—we’d need to charge $24 per cocktail. If we did that, we’d need to renovate and become a different venue—the kind of place that can get away with charging that much for a cocktail. But that’s not what the Northwood clientele would be willing to pay. That’s not what I wanted to charge them either—they have their own expenses to worry about. It just didn’t feel like the right thing to do to our community. Beyond that, I didn’t like the idea of putting $50,000 into my landlord’s building after the way he had treated us. So, in 2021, I went to Mexico.

Banquette seating in a dimly lit bar decorated with plants, mirrors and burnt-orange walls

The Riviera Maya is full of new energy. Playa del Carmen was a fraction of its size 20 years ago, and now it’s an emergent economy—there are so many opportunities to open creative businesses. We found the perfect space for lease when we were walking around downtown Tulum. It isn’t on the beach, where all the expensive clubs are; it’s in a less touristy pocket, with a bunch of other cool local bars and restaurants. The space wasn’t set up as a restaurant, but when we walked in we were struck by its beautiful interior courtyard. For the first time in years, I was excited.

That’s when I made the decision to phase out Northwood. Six months ago, we closed our doors for good. The day I posted about the closure, regulars showed up. It was a really beautiful moment. We had great staff, and I wish I could have found new jobs for all of them. I told them they were welcome to work for me in Mexico, but of course not everyone can just pick up and go. And the Project Gigglewater folks who have taken over the old Northwood space have done a fantastic job of elevating it—it’s now worthy of $24 drinks.

Closing and moving was a soul-based decision. I thought, I’ll rationalize it later, but I just can’t put my energy and emotion into Toronto anymore. In Mexico, I can actually see where my business will grow and progress in a really clear way. Mexico is not without its challenges, but it’s not as challenging as spinning my wheels in Canada. Setting up a company here takes months; in Canada, you can do it online overnight.

A margarita-like cocktail garnished with cucumber sits on a table decorated with a small vase of flowers

And there are a lot of ingredients and products that are easily accessible in Toronto but aren’t available here. We’re starting to grow some things, like herbs and edible flowers, on our rooftop, and we’ve set up a contract with a farmer nearby for ingredients we can’t grow ourselves. In both our cocktails and our food, we really want to focus on native species of Mexican flowers, spices and citrus.

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Even cocktail bitters are hard to find, so we’re making our own. When we first opened Northwood in 2013, we started off making our own bitters, but after a few years there were so many available that it made more sense to buy locally. It’s more work to make them, but it’s also nice to get back to our roots and to be able to say we’ve made everything here from scratch.

A cocktail sits on a cloth coaster on a table at a bar decorated with plants and twinkle lights

We’re also going to start taking our used citrus rinds and peels—where you get all the essential oils from—and making them into botanicals and skin-care products. It’s a very authentic, honest way of doing things. We’ve always strived for that, but it seems way more possible in Mexico than in Canada right now.

I feel like moving here has lifted a weight off my shoulders. Maybe it’s just from the contrast with the last few years in Canada, but for once I actually feel positive. There’s so much more space to create value here. Most of our guests are locals. We also get some tourists, who will become “regulars” for a week until it’s time to go home. I’m busy—starting a new business is always a lot of work—but I can’t complain. Whenever I get stressed out, I like to jump in a body of water. You can only do that for a few months of the year in Canada; in Tulum, you can do it all year round—and we’re 10 minutes from the beach. It’s a really nice change of quality of life.

When you run a successful business like Northwood, you never want to shut it down unless something forces the decision. If you’re successful, why would you throw that away? I said goodbye to a business I loved, but it just wasn’t the same anymore. It couldn’t be—Toronto wouldn’t allow it.

A plate with a seafood tartare sits on a communal table decorated with a small vase of flowers at Casa Palmeta, a bar in Tulum, Mexico