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‘Toronto’ New Restaurant is a Paradise for Bao Lovers

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This cleverly named restaurant makes a dizzying array of bao and banh mi, from pork belly to Japanese fried chicken. There’s also banh mi and a host of Asian-inspired appetizers like Bulgogi Kimchi Fries that’ll have you eating until you’re stuffed.

Read my profile of It’s a Bao Time in the restaurants section.

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Beyond mommy guilt: Is Canada’s growing meal-kit mania here to stay?

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TORONTO — Celebrities like Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, and NSync’s Lance Bass are now in the meal kit business, and for some that’s a sure sign the online subscription-based food startup phenomenon has hit its peak.

A plethora of the new e-commerce meal companies have popped up in Canada and the U.S. in the last couple of years, and subscribers have been joining the services in droves.

While the biggest player in the space, New York-based Blue Apron, does not operate in this country, a number of meal kit services are available locally and nationally for Canadians seeking a quick meal fix: Chef’s Plate, Goodfood, MissFresh, The Jolly Table, Cook It, Kuisto, Fresh City Farms, One Kitchen, Dinnerlicious, Fresh Prep and Germany’s Hello Fresh, to name a few.

There’s even a subscription-based startup for breakfasts, Montreal-based Oatbox, which delivers granolas, ‘overnight’ oats and granola bars to customers.

The convenience factor is undeniable. For about $10 to $13 per meal, customers receive a box of chilled, portioned food and recipes for an easy meal assembly.

The whole industry in the U.S. was founded on mommy guilt

Home chefs are able to cook dishes that evoke an au courant restaurant menu in less than half an hour: lentil mushroom tacos with jicama carrot slaw; mint sumac chicken with sautéed snap peas and carrot, parsnip and cucumber salad; Cajun tilapia over quinoa with a corn and tomato succotash.

But two recent initial public offerings by meal kit companies — including Blue Apron, the biggest player in the United States and Montreal-based Goodfood Market Inc. — ended up looking like a failed soufflé. Skeptics have drawn parallels between the spate of subscription startups and the faddish dot-com failures of the early 2000s.

Indeed, on Friday, Blue Apron announced it is cutting almost a quarter of its staff as it struggles to become a profitable business.

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‘Toronto’ At This Toronto Cafe you Can PWYC for Coffee

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One of Toronto’s quirkiest cafes has just become a bit more “kooky” in the words of its founder Liz Haines. Formerly called the Intergalactic Travel Authority, the espresso bar was designed to support Story Planet, a charity modelled after Dave Egger’s 826 Valencia, which provides writing and communication workshops for kids from age six to 18.

Operated as a social enterprise, the Intergalactic Space Authority was never about making tons of money, but the cafe was the economic engine that made running Story Planet out of a storefront space possible. Now, just over three years since it opened, the concept has proven insufficient to fund the operation.

Rather than close up shop, Haines has decided to try something unconventional. “While our social enterprise (formerly known as the ITA) has been an amazing community hub, it has not been financially viable. We have let the espresso machine go and are operating it, for the next little while, as a pay-what-you-can, serve-yourself community lounge,” she notes.

Aside from the loss of the espresso machine, the space remains the same as before, and there’s still drip coffee on offer. The space has always been available to rent ($30 an hour), so the new model isn’t radically different than before, but the notion of a PWYC cafe and lounge is intriguing.

“We’ve been surprised by the incredibly warm reception to this slightly kooky idea,” Haines writes in a blog post.

It will, however, need plenty of support to remain viable. Story Planet is trying out the concept for the month of April, after which time it will decide whether to keep the storefront space at 1165 Bloor St. West or close up shop and continue its programming in schools and community centres.

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Why Some Restaurants Struggle on Toronto’s East Side

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Toronto is a divided city; you’re either an east sider or a west sider and never the twain shall meet. Well, it’s not quite so dramatic, but there are definite differences between the two, especially when it comes to dining.

Sure, the east side has its share of excellent and buzz-worthy restaurants – many travel east of the Don Valley just to line up at Lady Marmalade or Bonjour Brioche around brunch-o-clock.

But not everyone enjoys such a charmed existence. Carlos Catallo sees the ups and downs first hand at the County General’s Riverside outpost. While this location is currently for sale, he notes that being for sale is very different than closing.

He does, however, notice clear differences between his restaurant’s two neighbourhoods. Riverside, he says, is much more mellow. “It feels very different, it feels very subdued. You can look out the windows on a Saturday night and see nobody on the street.”

On West Queen West, on the other hand, he sees much more foot traffic as people tend to hop from one place to another on weekends. But, he’s tried to fit his restaurant into the Riverside neighbourhood by offering a mellower atmosphere with quieter music and a more relaxed concept.

La Carnita’s Andrew Richmond echoes that sentiment. “I feel like there’s kind of an untapped market in relation to, or in contrast to, what’s going on in the west end,” he says.

“I think they are definitely very different demographics and you’ll notice that in your sales, you’ll notice that in your customer base, you’ll notice that in what people want and how they dine and how they drink. It is a different world….”

While most customers still consume alcohol he notes, they don’t drink as much and they also don’t stay out as late as those on the west side. Unsurprisingly, he also sees more families at La Carnita East.

These aren’t the only two Toronto chefs who’ve had experience on both sides of the city. Rock Lobster, for instance, popped up briefly in Leslieville before closing last year.

For now, however, Richmond, is looking forward to the incoming developments in Leslieville and Riverside, including the Broadview Hotel. And while his restaurant’s for sale, Catallo’s still making a go of it in Riverside too.

Photo by Jesse Milns.

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