Restaurant vendors taking part in a City of Toronto program focused on facilitating the growth of small businesses are speaking up after facing eviction and being “forced out” of their current lease.
The initiative, titled “The Food Incubator Tenancy Program,” aimed to encourage the establishment and initial growth of small food businesses in Toronto by entering into lease agreements with eligible start-up food entrepreneurs at below-market rent.
As part of the program, the City also entered into a lease agreement with a not-for-profit organization at below-market rent to operate the Food Learning Innovation Place — also known as FLIP. Tenants were offered a term of two years, with the option to extend their lease for one year.
Food vendors were ultimately chosen by a Tenant Selection Committee comprised of the local councillor as well as city staff to occupy a food hall at 5210 Yonge St. in North York., with the final selection including restaurants Da Endz, Chic Peas Veg, Teta’s Kitchen and Bun Haus.
Two vendors who spoke to blogTO, namely Naza Hasebenebi at Chic Peas Veg and Mary Freij at Teta’s Kitchen, said that their businesses were not thoroughly supported throughout the incubator program, with the success of and marketing for their businesses ultimately resting in their own hands.
“Two years on we have had no business support and no marketing. We were left to fend for ourselves in a hidden food hall with no footfall,” Freij explained to blogTO.
“It’s an unfortunate situation because we were told to commit to this program and leave our jobs to do this full time and they have not kept their end of the contract to ‘incubate’ us.”
Hasebenebi said she realized the food hall wasn’t ready for the vendors as soon as she walked in.
“There were no security cameras put in place, our kitchens didn’t even have enough electrical outlets to plug in for commercial kitchens,” she said. “They brought us in before it was ready because they wanted us to start paying the rent so that they can offset the expenses.”
Hasebenebi told blogTO that the vendors kept reaching out to the City and expressed that the small businesses could not be expected to pay rent in the face of “zero marketing” and promotion.
“We are inside the brick-and-mortar and our logos were not put outside as they told us they were going to do. When the sign finally came, it just said FLIP Kitchens,” she said.
Hasebenebi said the sign was “high and dark,” with limited visibility for those passing by, leading some local residents to believe that the kitchen was a culinary school.
“No one knows we’re in here. There isn’t proper signage. Obviously, when people think it’s a school, nobody comes in. You are the City of Toronto. You have millions of dollars at your fingertips. You’re not advertising and promoting the space. Our success is being hindered,” she said.
“Every customer that would find out about us would come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys need better signage, we had no idea you’re here, somebody told me about it, or I just stumbled upon it.'”
In October, Hasebenebi says her business began to receive calls regarding a 60-day eviction notice from the City.
“We were told that if we want to stay, we’d have to negotiate our lease and rent with the not-for-profit organization. Which didn’t make sense because the City brought us on,” she explained.
“When we got the lease, it was extremely generic, and didn’t explain anything, and on top of that, the rent was increased by an additional $500.”
Instead of supporting the program’s existing businesses, Hasebenebi said the not-for-profit organization has been recruiting other businesses instead — a prime reason why she decided to bring the public’s attention to the matter.
“We do not want someone else to go through this. They scammed us into believing this was an incubator but it turned out to be just a regular commercial lease and offered no support promised by the City,” Freij told blogTO.
“This is our livelihood. I’m a single mom with two children who I am the breadwinner in my family for. My business is what provides for my family, for my staff, and their families,” Hasebenebi said.
“The City abandoned us and left us on a ship to sink.”
blogTO reached out to the City of Toronto for comment on the rent hikes at the food hall as well as the sentiments of some of the food vendors.
“To support the start-up vendors in FLIP Kitchens, City Council waived rent for 2022 and provided a partial rent reduction for 2023 for a total rent reduction of $49,853.34 in 2023 for the tenants,” a statement from the City reads.
“There has been no increase in rent at the Food Hall by the City and it is open for business. A new operator has been selected through a request for expression of interest process and is presently being onboarded,” the statement continues.
“The City is drafting a new head tenant lease while the operator prepares sub-lease agreements to be offered to any of the existing vendors who are not in default or in arrears.”
Despite the City’s statement, Hasebenebi said that the businesses have realized that there was a “conflict of interest” between what the City told the not-for-profit organization and what they were told as vendors.
“What we have heard back is that basically, the only person that could do anything is councillor Lily Cheng, who has to bring forth a motion,” she said. “Had we known that this program was going to be this nonsense with no accountability, none of us would have ever taken it.”
blogTO reached out to Councillor Lilly Cheng’s office for comment on the program but did not receive a response back in time for this article’s publication.
Despite their shared hardships, Hasebenebi said the best part of the initiative has been how supportive the vendors have been to each other.
“We’re with each other every single day going through the same struggles and suffering,” she said. “We’ve become very much like a family.”