Toronto's CafeTO program that expands restaurants' outdoor eating space doesn't work in the suburbs

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Visiting Karla’s Roadhouse, a restaurant on Scarborough’s Kingston Road last July, Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted he was enjoying “the new CaféTO patio space” with residents there.

“This is a great example of the work our #CafeTO program is doing to help businesses plan and implement new patio configurations as we continue to move ahead with reopening,” the mayor said.

Strictly speaking, though, Karla’s temporary patio expansion had nothing to do with CaféTO, a city program which lets restaurants create cafés on public sidewalks and curb lanes.

It had everything to do with a plaza manager accommodating his tenants by allowing more outdoor seats.

Tory would have been hard-pressed to find CaféTO participants in the suburbs — apart from Etobicoke's lakeshore and a few areas with wide sidewalks such as Willowdale.

Of 801 restaurants in CaféTO last year, two were in Scarborough.

With unrestricted indoor dining a faint hope for 2021, can the city give suburban restaurants, struggling as hard as their downtown counterparts, similar opportunities to seat diners outdoors?

CaféTO is signing up restaurants again, with the city promising in a news release “to ensure more restaurants in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York are ready to take advantage of opportunities for quick expansion of outdoor dining.”

But in suburban malls and plazas where restaurants are surrounded by private parking spaces and don’t have legal access to the curb, it isn’t the city that decides whether or not a tent or temporary patio is OK.

“It’s all about the plaza owner,” Scarborough North Coun. Cynthia Lai said last month. “Some of them don’t get it.”

Lai thinks language barriers and poor promotion have hurt CaféTO in the suburbs, while Paul Ainslie, another Scarborough councillor, thinks it puts too much emphasis on utilizing Business Improvement Areas to make the programs successful. Scarborough has only four BIAs.

Ainslie has asked city staff to develop “a component” of CaféTO and CurbTO that will ensure more participation in places like Scarborough.

Co-owner Shien Thiyagarajah is grateful Karla's, making 10 per cent of what it did before the pandemic, could expand an existing patio into a shared walkway in front of his restaurant.

The extra space was enough for only two tables, but that was important last summer and Thiyagarajah plans to use it again.

“Otherwise, I can’t survive,” he said.

Maystone Plaza’s manager Pascal Murphy let Karla’s patio expand and allowed another restaurant, Sunny Up, to move on to a sidewalk.

Murphy said he’ll do anything within reason to help tenants survive the pandemic, adding customers might patronize other businesses at Maystone.

“I want these people to do well. These are mom-and-pop shops, and they employ a lot of local people,” he said.