Toronto Island Cafe survives seasonality, short supplies, and weather to earn tourist dollars
Toronto Island Café
20 Withrow Street, Toronto, ON.
Dine-in, catering services, live music
For Toronto Island Café, patronage is less about its island-themed food, and more about the weather.
Nestled at the edge of a footpath a few hundred paces from the ferry docks at Ward’s Island in Toronto, the café is one of the few places to get a meal off the city’s shores. It makes for a hot commodity on long summer days perfectly punctuated by a fish taco and some lemonade.
But there’s a reason few other restaurants call the island home. Sourcing supplies from the mainland is a nightmare, and that lemonade is sold in a brief seasonal window when tourists and Torontonians visit the island during the summer, meaning the café needs to make enough cash in a few short months to sustain its fixed costs and other expenses year round.
This is becoming more difficult – formerly known as a snack-bar for lazy sunbathers, its owner is turning the business into a full-fledged restaurant. But revenues must go up and costs decrease to ensure the change works long-term.
Customers, looking to take advantage of this year’s sundrenched summer, often spill out of the patio and onto nearby picnic tables. The scene suggests a gamble that’s paid off. But continued success still means a careful balance of watching weather reports, sourcing stock, and keeping staff on retainer – miscalculation means spoiled food, wasted man hours, and an empty till, with slim profit margins and seasonality compounding every lost day.
“It’s hard to gauge how busy you’re going to be, and what day we’re going to busy,” says Zorah Freeman-McIntyre, the café’s owner and chef. On a busy Saturday in July or August, the business could serve 300-500 patrons. And the season, which traditionally runs from the Victoria Day weekend to Labour Day, has lengthened since Freeman-McIntyre took took the reins of the 50-year-old business from his parents – who still work at the cafe – 3 years ago. But weekdays are consistently slow, and weekend crowds don’t show up in the rain.
So, the café built its staffing model around minimizing costs. It employs 25 workers – both islanders and city-dwellers – from line cooks to waiters and even a full-time baker. They’re sent home on slow days, and don’t work during the off-season.
Brynn Winegard, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Ted Rogers School of Management, says staffing itself isn’t enough to protect against seasonal volatility .
“You really need to project properly what products you need,” she says, especially when it comes to perishables like food.
As part of its business philosophy, the Island Café sources most of its fruits, vegetables, meats and cheese locally from the Ontario Food terminal. But buying local doesn’t do the business any favours when it comes to reducing costs, especially since deliveries have to be ferried across the bay between Toronto Harbour and the Island.
“It costs us $100 each time to bring our trucks across,” says Freeman-McIntyre, adding that “any suppliers that come to the island also have to charge a fee to get their stuff over.”
He’s has tried everything to put a lid on expenses, including a plan to have supplies dropped at ferry docks and lugged across by hand and bike carts. But this isn’t particularly practical, especially since the 20-minute trip from the mainland has to be made 20-25 times per week.
So, Freeman-McIntyre is concentrating on boosting customer numbers during slow times. He’s promoting the café online with a website that lets patrons scope out the menu and make reservations, and is also offering catering and an event space for weddings, work parties and live music shows.
Freeman-McIntyre even acquired a liquor license this year – the last major component in his strategy of making the Island Café a destination, as opposed to just a stopover. But convincing customers to take the ferry specifically for a dinner might be a stretch — nearby downtown Toronto is littered with similar restaurants that don’t have to charge a premium for delivery costs.
“Foot traffic is diminished by virtue of the fact that they’re going to be a ferry ride away,” says Winegard..
And, with the business operating on a five-year lease from the Ward’s Island Association, the café’s fixed expenses don’t go away when the restaurant shuts down during the off season – which runs from the end of October until late spring.
So, outside of food and cooking supplies, Freeman-McIntyre and his family try to be as self-contained as possible. His father does the accounting and maintenance, while his mother manages day-to-day restaurant operations, freeing Freeman-McIntyre to handle logistics.
And, during the off-season, the company prevents stagnation by concentrating on low-cost improvement solutions.
“We’ve been doing a lot of construction and renovations, and upgrading and working on our new menus,” says Freeman-McIntyre. But, he adds, even though these tasks are mostly carried out by family members, “it always adds up to way more money then you (project).”
Still, says Winegard, the café’s challenges, though lofty, are a big part of why they’ve managed to stay in business.
“The brilliance is that during their high season they can play with scarcity,” she says. ”They’re a monopoly — of sorts.”