Toronto’s patio fee “nightmare” reminds us just how vital outdoor seating is—and not just for happy hour
Fees outlined in a draft proposal would have threatened restaurateurs who rely on packed patios to offset the winter doldrums
Sure, raising permit fees for patios on Toronto sidewalks by as much as 1,000 per cent is a great idea—so long as customers are willing to pay $55 per taco. But unless diners go along with such a steep markup, the revised fee structure in the city’s draft proposal is a dead-end attempt at squeezing blood from a stone.
After presenting a draft of the new fee structure on Monday—greeted with a resounding “hell, no” from vocal, patio-loving Torontonians—city staff are already walking back the proposal, with mayor John Tory calling the proposed fees excessive.
“I am not going to be the mayor who attacks fun in this city,” Tory said on Thursday, adding: “I thought I was having a nightmare.”
The mayor believes that the fees for patios that serve alcohol, which haven’t changed in 20 years, still need to be addressed. But you can only go so far, so fast, without totally upending an industry of small businesses and slim profit margins that often relies on packed patios during the summer months to bring in extra customers to offset slower winter months.
“Myself and friends in the industry are already talking about packing it in and moving up north,” says Armando Pronesti, owner of Stazione Centrale, a small southern Italian restaurant bolstered by a patio on St. Clair West.
Among the range of increases in the proposal, the fees for downtown properties would rise, from the current $78.81 per square foot of sidewalk patio, to $296.01.
TO proposes jacking sidewalk patio fees to business-crushing levels. One bar on Bloor jumps from $1,400 to $14,000. https://t.co/tra8MHI2Eh
— Chris Nuttall-Smith (@cnutsmith) February 2, 2017
“The proposed increase is drastic, and exceeds an inflation-based adjustment,” says Matthew LaRochelle, co-owner of Cold Tea in Kensington Market. (His back-alley patio is on private property, so it wouldn’t be affected by this change.) LaRochelle sees it as bad for business all around.
Toronto has more than 7,000 restaurants, bars and cafes, which generate an estimated $5.8 billion in annual revenue, according to the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance. Perhaps bean counters searching the municipal couch cushions for additional municipal revenue look into the warm glow of restaurant dining rooms and imagine piles of cash just lying around, waiting to fill our potholes.
But people only seeing the glitz of the restaurant business don’t hear about the expense of doing business in a big, expensive city. With rent and food costs constantly rising, there’s no room for sudden gouging from the municipal government in an industry with a national average profit margin of only 4.2 per cent.
“I understand Toronto’s infrastructure is expensive, and anyone living here needs to ‘pay to play’,” says LaRochelle. “But the size of the increase and abruptness is putting another financial burden on an industry that drives growth in this city. It’s certainly a huge concern for a lot of our neighbours in the market,” where sidewalk patios abound. He added: “It’s a big disincentive on future projects’ properties as well.”
When we’re looking at neighbourhoods to live in, restaurants are often seen as evidence of a community’s success, rather than the cause of it. Restaurants are culture. They are our gathering spaces, a reason to go out at night during our snowy winters—and to stay out during our hot summers.
“Patios undeniably contribute to the seasonal fabric of the city,” says Maxime Bocken, creative brand director for Studio Munge, which has designed luxurious patios for restaurants El Catrin, Figo, Cluny and La Société. After hunkering down for the winter, the desperation for residents to spend time outside again is a boon for restaurant coffers.
“The one time of year when you do the most business is summertime, where people are going out all the time,” says Patrick McMurray, owner of Ceili Cottage on Queen Street East. His patio—which is on private property and protected from increased taxes, for the moment—nearly triples his capacity. “You can really balance out your year in three months…I ask everyone, if you’re going to build a restaurant now, does it have patio space? If they say no, I say ‘consider a different location.’”
That advice nearly required revision. Because if the original patio proposal were to have been enacted in its most onerous form, the best advice for restaurateurs with patios—such as Stazione Centrale’s Pronesti—would have been to try another city altogether.