“There’s a lot of red tape”: Restaurateur Roger Yang on the frustration over CaféTO delays
The owner of Avelo and Osteria Du breaks down why CaféTO wait times are bad for business—and why restaurants never had a chance to recover from the pandemic
Toronto may be deep into its brief-yet-glorious patio season, but at some restaurants, the pints and sangria still aren’t flowing. That’s because CaféTO, a pandemic-born city initiative that allows some eateries and bars to open patios on public sidewalks and streets, has implemented new safety-related permit requirements. The red tape and growing wait times have left restaurants across the city financially hamstrung at a time when commercial rents are rising, the cost of food is inflating and staff shortages are the norm.
Roger Yang, owner of Italian plant-based restaurants Avelo and Osteria Du, is still waiting to receive approval from the city to open his sidewalk patio and deck. For Yang, the delays, along with the pinch of inflation and high property taxes, are making restaurant work less viable. He announced this week that he’s planning to close Osteria Du by September 2023. We asked him how a shortened patio season has affected his business and what it takes for a restaurant to survive in the city these days.
You own two of the top vegan restaurants in the city. How did you become a plant-based-cuisine magnate?
I used to work in telecommunications management, but I always had a soft spot for vegan food. I had this idea to open a place that presented plant-based dining as enjoyable and desirable rather than as a hippie alternative. In 2016, I partnered with chef Dualco De Labio to open Awai on Bloor Street West, and in 2019 we moved to Church and Wellesley and rebranded as Avelo. As far as I know, it’s still the only plant-based tasting menu in Toronto. Then, in February 2020, we signed a second lease on Queen Street West with plans to open Osteria Du—a more budget-friendly version of Avelo that focused on familiar comfort foods.
Did you say February 2020?
Yes—not great timing as it turned out. We had no idea what was coming, and I’m not just talking about the pandemic. Our chef also passed away unexpectedly. We almost gave up on our idea and tried to transfer the lease to someone else. But, once the pandemic hit, nobody wanted the space. So we kept it, and that summer we used it to sell takeout pizza. That worked well. We put a few tables outside the restaurant and parked a gelato truck beside it, which created buzz and put us on the map. By the fall of 2021, we were still around, so we finally launched Osteria Du as planned.
Related: These are Toronto’s best new patios
Once indoor dining came back, did you keep the outdoor offering?
We did. We saw how much people liked sitting outside during the pandemic, and we’d heard that the CaféTO program would allow us to serve on the street in front of the restaurant. So we invested. We built a large patio and deck that fits nine tables and opened it last summer. It boosted our sales by thousands of dollars per month. The tables were often full, the gelato stand was busy, and the constant crowds attracted tourists and built up a regular customer base.
Did you apply for CaféTO at Osteria Du this year?
Yes, but it’s been much more difficult. After applying in March, we’re still waiting for our permits, which we were told we’d receive sometime between mid-May and mid-June. Osteria Du has both a patio on the street and an attached slightly elevated deck. Each requires separate permits. The patio and deck dimensions are the same as they were last year, but we still had to go through the process of submitting our drawings to the city again. Our application to open the patio was approved on June 12, but we’re still waiting for approval for the deck. Because the two are attached, it doesn’t really make sense to open one without the other. We wanted to open all of it during the May long weekend because the weather was so nice, but we’re still waiting for full approval. In a three-month patio season, a few weeks of delay makes a huge difference.
Do you know what’s causing the delays?
I don’t, but I get the impression that different people run the program every year, which doesn’t allow for a streamlined approval process. There is also a lot of red tape. For example, the patio length requirements seem to change each summer, so we always have to reapply—acceptance into the program one year doesn’t guarantee acceptance the next. I’ve also heard of a few restaurants being denied CaféTO permits this year without much explanation, despite having participated successfully the past couple of years. That’s obviously much worse than dealing with a delay, and it’s also bad for the city to lose such vibrant establishments.
Has the city given you any sort of rationale for all the extra hoops?
No. There was very little communication at all other than occasional emails saying that this year’s edition of the program is coming. CaféTO is in its fourth year of operation, so I don’t understand why there are so many hurdles.
Apart from the loss of revenue (and sangria pitchers), what are the downsides to delayed approval?
It makes it hard to plan. We don’t know when to hire extra people. Ideally, we’d be notified of a start date months in advance. As it is, we’re having to react and rush things in the middle of the summer. We’re also faced with a choice—we could jump the gun and just open the patio to make up for the revenue losses, but maybe then we’d risk being fined. I hesitate to do that, especially because the emails from the city make liberal use of bold font and exclamation marks to warn us not to install the deck without their approval.
This short patio season is going to be Osteria Du’s last—you’re planning to close for good in September. What happened?
We couldn’t make our numbers work. It’s a different world today: everything costs more. Our rent has risen 30 per cent since 2019, our employees cost more because we pay them a living wage, and we’ve had to increase our prices because groceries have become so expensive. We’re getting fewer customers because our food—like everything else—costs more than it used to. We don’t open on Mondays or Tuesdays anymore because we can’t justify it. We’re certainly not the only ones feeling the pinch: I’ve noticed lots of restaurants closing in the past year. In the vegetarian and vegan space, LOV and Planta Cocina were surprising closures, both being big-budget places.
Would a more seamless patio season have changed things?
Our patio and deck certainly make a difference in the summer—I’d estimate that they boost our sales by 20 per cent—and that helps us gain significant momentum for the rest of the year. But I’m not sure if an earlier opening would have been enough to balance our numbers year-round. CaféTO has been a big help, and I do wish that we had more time with it. But, really, it’s the tip of the iceberg.
Restaurants have been back operating full-swing for a couple of years now. Hasn’t the restaurant industry recovered from the pandemic?
No, it really hasn’t. In 2021 and 2022, restaurants did well because there was a rush to return to public eating and we were still getting emergency subsidies. That phase has passed—subsidies stopped and dine-in numbers are lower than they were before 2020. It has always been a tough industry: pre-pandemic, a successful restaurant made a few percent of profit every year, and even breaking even was considered a decent success. So an event like the pandemic, or even something that lowers margins by just a few per cent, can take the wheels off an establishment.
Aside from ironing out its CaféTO application process, could the city be doing more to help restaurants that are feeling the squeeze?
There are open storefronts everywhere, which tells you that rent is too expensive for businesses to handle. A lot of our expenses go to commercial property taxes—if the city lowered those, that would be a huge help. At the moment, they’re about 25 per cent higher than what we’re able to pay with our margins.
Despite it being a difficult time for restaurants, Avelo is still packed every night. How are you making it work?
Avelo works because it was established before the pandemic and is unique by virtue of being a vegan tasting menu. We’re also small—there are only seven tables in the restaurant—and our rent is manageable because we’re not on a main street. Osteria Du’s challenge is that it’s bigger and on Queen Street West, where rent is higher because it’s more central. I think the other thing that makes a restaurant work nowadays is a strong team and a positive work environment. With that in mind, next year we’re planning to open Bar Avelo, which will be on the second floor of Avelo. We’re hoping to staff it with our Osteria Du employees.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.