by Karolina Weglarz
There’s a black hole at the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets. It’s on the south side across the street from the construction site of the old Sam the Record Man. The windows are covered in paper under a blank orange banner and signs that plead “For Lease.”
Frank’s Gourmet Hot Dog Restaurant moved out in 2008. A year later, Strata Shoes closed shop. It has a history of sucking in businesses and spitting them out soon after. Now, Tatami Sushi owners Albert Dayan and Claude Harroch are trying their luck with a sushi bar to be up and running by the end of the month.
Opening shop on the longest and one of the most well-known streets in Canada does not come cheap. Yonge Street rent is constantly on the rise. Many storeowners are paying over $20,000 a month. Still, it’s easy to think that the corner shop at 335 Yonge Street is cursed. Tenants cannot seem to last more than a year. Compared with Salad King’s run of nearly two decades, the businesses are flying in and out of the space next door like a turnstile.
Leah Lipkowitz, who owned Strata Shoes, blames the loss of her business on poor management. The Montreal native was dealing with a pregnancy at the time and was unable to be on site to train, watch and motivate the staff as much as she wanted to. Lipkowitz also says one of her mistakes with the business was partnering up and failing to make critical decisions, such as moving the door to the Yonge Street side, which Lipkowitz says might have improved traffic.
“Many customers didn’t know how to find the door or always thought we were closed,” she says. She recognizes that there were other factors at play. Rent, for instance, was “very prohibitive” and even though there was a stream of steady clients, the business couldn’t sell enough pairs of $40 shoes to turn a profit. Dayan dismisses the past failures to forces based on human, not spiritual, interference.
“In the world of business,” he says, “if you have a good location, if you have a good concept and you have good food, how can it fail?”
Creasians BBQ is having a sale. “Free soup, spring roll, or coffee,” reads a black sign on the sidewalk out front. This would usually bring crowds flocking to the scene, desperate to get their hands on the complimentary offer. But the restaurant is almost empty today. Two men in business suits are enveloped in the scents of sweet and greasy Asian food, waiting for their meals to be served. A male Ryerson student sits alone in the corner, reading a book in betweeen small bites of a sandwich, while two girls gossip a few tables down.
The restaurant at 3 Gerrard St. E. sits on a piece of land that has housed more than its share of food joints over the last few years, including Dragon Sushi, Café Gabbana and Wok n’ Roll. Creasians BBQ manager William Cheung often speculates about whether the place is cursed.
The restaurant opened in September 2009 and, despite a slow start, Cheung is trying to ensure survival on the tough street. He recently started catering, is working towards getting a liquor license and has contacted Sick Kids Hospital in hopes of collaborating on a charitable cause where Cheung would donate a portion of each meal to the hospital.
The businesses that survive on Yonge Street rely on two factors: a product that sells and a dedicated customer base. Jason Palma, owner of Play De Records at 357 Yonge, credits the 15 years he’s been in business to his success at meeting his customer’s desires. While restaurants sell essential goods — food — other stores, like Palma’s record shop, cater to our desire for luxury items. “Businesses do need some rejuvenation,” Palma explains. “However, it’s the busiest stretch of retail, so whatever product is being sold plays a large impact on how well a business does.”
Flash Jack, a basement adult video store, has also been operating on Yonge Street for 15 years now, though it has also fallen on hard times. Storeowner Mashhour Salah has seen a decrease in product sales, which he claims is due in part to the recession.
“I used to have three to four cash registers open down here. Now there is only one. People are scared to spend money,” he says, shaking his head.
But Salah still manages to keep business running. His approach: take care of his customers, and they will take care of him. He makes sure to offer good deals on items and to be respectful of their wants and needs — especially those international customers coming to visit his store from as far as London, England or the United States.
But Salah says it’s been hard dealing with downtown parking costs and the area’s bad reputation with crime, especially in light of the 2005 Boxing Day shooting. “The city killed downtown,” he says.
With a condominium under construction at Gerrard and Yonge Streets set to open in about five years, as well as Ryerson’s multi-million dollar Student Learning Centre, downtown Toronto is booming with business. And Tatami Sushi seems ready to make its mark, cursed locale or not. Dayan’s hoping the restaurant’s classy fare and takeout menu will attract both Bay Street bigwigs and Ryerson students looking for a fancy dining experience.
“For us it’s the equivalent of New York’s Times Square,” says Dayan. “It’s the best corner in Toronto.”