The Container Cafe – Two Perspectives

Since the fall there has been a big bright blue addition to the park.  This is the new Container Cafe offering food and groceries to park users and community residents.  I was interested to find out how the Container Cafe came to fruition and the players involved.  I got in touch with Nicolas Gallant and Gurbeen Bhasin.

■ – Thanks for doing this interview… can you describe your what organization you belong to?

Nicholas Gallant –  I work for the Office of City Councillor Ana Bailão which represents the interests and initiatives of Ward 18 residents at Toronto City Hall.

Gurbeen Bhasin –  I’ve been the executive director of Aangen since 2000.  Aangen is a grassroots, not for-profit, and we pride ourselves on self-sustainability and integrity. We work with local and ethical farmers to provide the community and local businesses with fresh farm goods; with the net proceeds we are able to help families in need locally and globally.  I have been committed to growing this organization in a very organic and sustainable manner.

■ – At what point did you or your organization get involved in the Shipping Container Cafe?

NG  The Councillor’s Office was involved from the very beginning. Working with the Friends of McCormick Park (FOMP) we identified the need for food in the park through FOMP’s master plan process, worked together with FOMP and the McCormick Arena to investigate the possibility of opening a cafe window to the park from the side of the arena building, and then the Councillor and Kevin Lee from Scadding Court Community Centre brought the idea to use the shipping container cafe model to the park.

GB – The news about the shipping container city pilot project was announced at our Spring Fundraising Dinner in April by Ana Bailao. At first, we didn’t know what this project would entail. We could not have imagined that after a series of meetings and community collaborations that Aangen would have its own café and market to run by September.

■ – What were the steps involved for your organization in bringing the cafe to fruition?

NG   We first worked with FoMP and the community to identify local needs, and then found the Scadding Court Market 707/Business Out of the Box model.  Next we invited the Scading Court staff to present to FoMP. At the same time, we inquired with Parks, Forestry & Recreation Business Services on possibility of implementation and seeked out potential operators from the community.  Aangen Community Centre and Working Women Community Centre both expressed interest.  Once we knew what we needed, we were able to allocate funding from parkland dedication reserve funds for the container.

GB  There were many steps Aangen had to take before the launch of the café on September 27, 2014. Aangen, FOMP, Scadding Court representatives and Ana Bailao’s office had multiple meetings to ensure everything and everyone was on task. We needed to get a solid team together and at the same time we wanted to ensure we were giving employment to those who would benefit from it and otherwise had difficulties finding jobs.

NG   Before the festival, we worked with Parks Technical Services staff to coordinate delivery and installation of the unit and we helped support the festival and launch event.

GB  Creating the menu turned out to be much more daunting than we anticipated but we needed to ensure the menu aligned with Aangen values and would best serve the community. A big hurdle we faced was applying for organizational insurance as the project was so unique we encountered much unprecedented legality. The day before our launch, at the eleventh hour, our insurance was approved.

NG   Since the launch, the City has been acting on post-implementation requests for improvements to the unit and addressing operator, community, City concerns and requests as they arise.  We are currently working to ensure successful implementation and the follow-up necessary for ongoing success.

■ – Dufferin Grove and MacGregor park also serve food. How does this pilot project differ from what those parks are doing?

NG   The Container Cafe drew inspiration from the successes at Dufferin Grove, MacGregor and other Ward 18 parks where nutritious and affordable food was provided in the park. In these examples, we saw that food serves to further animate our neighbourhood public spaces and wanted to replicate this, while looking at models that could be self-sustaining.

In both cases, a similar amount of initial capital investment was necessary to provide kitchen equipment. At Dufferin Grove, this initiative was funded by the City of Toronto Food and Hunger Action Project Grant and the G.H. Wood Foundation Grant. At McCormick Park, the Councillor allocated parkland dedication reserve (Section 42) funds to purchase the container for the City and outfit it with the necessary kitchen equipment.

On the operations side, Dufferin Grove and MacGregor Park serve food prepared by City of Toronto Recreation Staff. At the McCormick Park Shipping Container Cafe, a local charitable organization (Aangen) is preparing and serving the food. Aangen pays a nominal rent fee to the City. Aangen sustains its own operation through sales of prepared food and market products, fundraising.

GB  In some ways we are like Dufferin and McGregor Park as we serve food in a park. However, we do not have city employees and it is up to Aangen to ensure the sustainability of the café. Our menu items were carefully chosen not solely based on convenience but also on nutrition. We have committed to using as many organic and fair trade options as possible and we only use biodegradable products to ensure the integrity of working in a beautiful and natural setting.

■ – What has your experience with the cafe been since the cafe has moved into the park?

NG  Very positive. The Councillor’s Office has continued to support the project post-implementation, both from City Hall and as customers who love the cafe, the organization. the park and community.

GB  The café has been a lot of fun to operate and also a learning curve as Aangen has never undertaken such a project. In so many ways we are building a hub for community engagement. We are not only a café but also a farmers market as we carry spelt bread, honey, free-range farm eggs, maple syrup and more. Recently we have found a way to integrate our programs and campaigns into the café; the community can drop off used winter items for the local shelters we support or sign a petition and be a unified voice to bring about change to an international issue. We are learning of the needs the community has and every day we are working towards making this project work for everyone.

■ – It seems like that the cafe is planning to stay open all year round despite the cold and dark days of winter. That seems like a difficult challenge. How will you face it?

NG   We have been facing it by preparing the cafe for cold weather, ensuring there are windows to allow the service counter to remain open, while providing protection from the elements. We have also worked with the Community Centre to investigate the possibility of serving some meals inside on very cold days and at times when nobody is in the park.

GB  The community centre, the arena and the park will always have activity and we are going to work with community members to promote the café. With the help of FOMP we are hoping that there will be an outdoor rink this year that will attract many more people even in the colder months.

■ – How long will the pilot last and what would be the next steps if it’s successful?

NG   The pilot is ongoing with no fixed end date. The City will evaluate the project close to the time of contract renewal (September, 2015) . If it proves successful, the idea is to expand the model of shipping container cafes to other parks where community organization, local context and park amenities would lend well to such an initiative. City Councillors from other Wards (32 and 43, to name a couple) have expressed interest.

GB  We hope for this pilot to last a very long time and that it will become an exemplary model for many more park cafés throughout the city. It would be great to have other not-for-profits or grass roots organizations running their own containers and integrate the kind of work they do in combination with healthy and nutritious food for the entire community.

■ – I love the idea of having healthy, reasonably priced food in the park and I wish the cafe great success. Any other thoughts?

NG  It’s important that the cafe serve the community the sort of food/drinks they desire at an affordable price-point and the operators need ongoing constructive feedback as they fine-tune their offerings. It is also important that the community support this innovative local project first and foremost by purchasing the coffee, prepared foods and market products, secondly by spreading the word – informing and encouraging neighbours to participate in the endeavour.