Skye Prescott outside their restaurant Flame and Smoke at Market 707 in Toronto. Photo: The Local StoryLab
This story was originally shared through the Metcalf Foundation’s Highlights and Challenges in Building Inclusive Local Economies series, a project done in partnership with the award-winning team at The Local. Together, they have produced five stories focused on people and organizations working to create more equitable and inclusive economic opportunities for all who call Toronto home. These stories showcase some of the incredible work supported through the Metcalf Foundation’s Inclusive Local Economies program over the last 10 years, as well as the ongoing challenges. Thank you to the Metcalf Foundation and the Local StoryLab for allowing us to share your amazing work!
By: The Local StoryLab
Tucked into the busy intersection of Bathurst and Dundas, surrounded by a hospital, a community centre, and a library, Market 707 is a collection of more than 20 vendors housed in shipping containers, all serving up delicious and affordable food from around the world. Many of the containers are owned by people who have traditionally been locked out of business ownership — largely thanks to how expensive start-ups costs are, especially for restaurants looking to rent commercial space in Toronto.
Renting a unit at Market 707, which opened in 2011, costs an average of $600 a month, says Jake Rutland, the project coordinator-operations at Scadding Community Centre, where Market 707 is based. Comparatively, the typical cost of renting a commercial space in downtown Toronto clocks in at about $4,000 to $5,000 a month. Scadding Court provides Market 707 tenants with a three-season patio and upkeep, as well as daily waste, water and wastewater disposal. “We also work to provide our vendors with opportunities as they arise, whether through granting or training opportunities, or meaningful collaborations with local partners,” Rutland says. Due to high demand and low tenancy turnover, time on the market’s waitlist can stretch more than two years.
Tanvi Swar, the co-owner of Little Sister Baking, first discovered the market after using Scadding Court’s community kitchen. “We realized there was a whole vendor community and ended up finding a space,” she says. It has allowed Swar “to open a store, to be profitable, to pay ourselves, and to have a physical location while doing all those things. The subsidized rent is truly a blessing.”
We spoke to six vendors at Market 707 about their businesses, the uniqueness of running a restaurant at the market, and what sorts of eats they serve.
Houssam Harwash and his brother Osama Harwash in front of their restaurant Chef Harwash. Photo: The Local StoryLab
Year opened: 2019
Type of food: Syrian street food
When the Harwash family first came to Canada in 2018 as refugees from Syria, Houssam Harwash was making ends meet as an Uber driver. He liked learning about the city from his riders, but he dreamed of bringing the food of his hometown Damascus to Toronto. Along with his brother Osama, Houssam opened up Chef Harwash at the end of 2019, where they serve Syrian street food like soujouk (spicy fermented sausage) sandwiches and saj bread. “We aim not to westernize the food. I want it to seem like you’re travelling to Damascus without travelling to Damascus,” says Houssam, who adds that their father’s — and grandfather’s — background as a butcher in Syria meant that he and Osama knew a lot about running a food business already. While their first pandemic winter was “devastating,” Houssam says, because there were so few tourists and low foot traffic in the area, the brothers’ business is now thriving. Though they’re still priced out of most traditional spaces, the brothers hope to secure another storefront soon.
“Whenever someone goes back to Syria, back to Damascus, I ask them to please bring me spices like fenugreek and Aleppo peppers. They’re available in Canada, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t trigger the lightbulb in my brain.”
Rie Arai, owner of Omusubi Bar Suzume. Photo: The Local StoryLab
Omusubi Bar Suzume
Year opened: 2020
Type of food: Japanese
After chef Rie Arai lost most of her hours at a sushi restaurant when her boss retired in 2018, she started selling her omusubi (nori-wrapped rice balls) at farmer’s markets, food shows, and universities across the GTA. Soon, the sushi restaurant shuttered and Arai took on the pop-up full-time, travelling around the city to sell her omusubi, which were perfectly portable for people walking around a market or students rushing to and from class. Still, she wanted a permanent location, and inked a lease at Market 707 — right before the pandemic hit. It took six months for her license to go through: “Back then, nothing was online,” Arai says. “But [the Market 707 folks] helped us call the city on the phone to get them to look at our application, which was so helpful.”
The name Omusubi Bar Suzume is a nod to the small town Arai grew up in, Suzumenomiya, which means “sparrow palace,” and Arai aims to make comforting Japanese food that reminds her of what she ate at home as a kid. On top of the rice balls, she sells donburi (rice bowls) and made-to-order Osechi, bento boxes usually served during special occasions. Arai also takes advantage of local and seasonal ingredients for an ever-changing menu, depending on what’s in stock at farmers’ markets — a habit she picked up from her pop-up days. While there are challenges that come with the space — there aren’t a lot of electrical outlets in those shipping containers, for example, so it can be hard to use multiple appliances at once — Arai loves the community at Market 707, from local school children to people visiting the hospital to tourists and Torontonians discovering the market for the first time.
“The community here is so good. We are always helping other vendors, recommending each other to customers, or, if they’re on social media, posting about them when they’re doing something special.”
Mike Won, chef and owner at Sulee Dosirak. Photo: The Local StoryLab
Year opened: 2021
Type of food: Korean
Siblings Mike and Su Jin Won started their Korean restaurant, SuLee Dosirak, as a kimchi company in April 2021, selling their goods (with free shipping within the GTA) through Instagram and Facebook. “It worked out perfectly for us because everyone was in lockdown and doing everything virtually,” Mike says. “So what better way to launch a business than go online, where we could capture a lot of people.” It worked out so well, in fact, that the Wons soon began to run out of storage and capacity at the commercial kitchen they rented. “Making kimchi is very labour intensive, and we were making 4 to 8 boxes of it a week,” Mike says.
So the Wons began exploring options for a brick and mortar location where they could serve other Korean side dishes. “The opportunity came up at Market 707, so we were able to showcase for our customers a wide array of dishes outside of just kimchi for our customers,” Mike says. Now, the Wons sell gimbap, bibimbap, ddukbokki, and pork bone soup. Inconsistent water supply in the shipping container can complicate the important task of washing and cooking rice, but Mike says that they’re proud to be a part of Market 707. “Being able to feed people at a more affordable price, simply because rent is a lot cheaper, helps us all out,” he says.
“Market 707 is a great place where you can take a trip around the world and experience food from all different types of cuisine. I think that’s a beautiful thing to open people up to a wide array of food that they’re not used to.”
Skye Prescott outside their restaurant Flame and Smoke. Photo: The Local StoryLab
Flame and Smoke
Year opened: 2019
Type of food: Southern comfort food
Before opening up their Southern comfort food stall, Flame and Smoke, chef Skye Prescott had worked in the restaurant industry for 10 years and dreamed of serving gourmet food at not-so-gourmet prices. “I wanted to give everybody the opportunity to eat well,” they said. Flame and Smoke, which began as a small catering company, provided clients with a wide variety of choices that worked with any dietary restrictions and — most importantly to Prescott and their business partner, Jessica Neverson — with any budget. Still, they wanted a place where they could meet and interact with customers, but with sky-high commercial rents in Toronto, the pair were priced out of most traditional spaces. “To run any food establishment, you have to have space and a kitchen,” says Neverson. “We didn’t have the resources to go the traditional route, which is super cost-prohibitive.”
In 2019, the pair found their answer at Market 707. There, Prescott and Neverson serve up Southern classics like deep fried cheesecake, mac and cheese, and their bestseller, the barbeque chicken sandwich. The folks at Flame and Smoke aim to provide something that isn’t available in the area, while mixing it up and making it a bit more upscale. “We are offering people an alternative to fast food,” Neverson says. “It’s the quality of going to eat at a fancy restaurant, but still being able to eat it on the bus.”
“When we discovered that there was a different way to get our foot in the door of business ownership, it was really exciting,” says Neverson. “And we wouldn’t be where we are now had that not been an opportunity for us.”
Ryan Lim serves a customer at his restaurant Marq’s Chicago Beef. Photo: The Local StoryLab
Marq’s Chicago Beef
Year opened: 2021
Type of food: Chicago classics
When COVID arrived, Mark and Ryan Lim found themselves longing for the food of their childhood. “We have family in Chicago and we used to visit them often, so when the pandemic hit, we weren’t able to have our favourite foods anymore,” Ryan says. The brothers dreamed of getting their hands on an Italian Beef, the Windy City’s signature sandwich. The Chicago Beef, as it’s often called, contains paper-thin sliced beef that’s roasted low and slow, seasoned with Italian herbs and piled onto a French roll with hot giardiniera peppers. Then, the kicker: The sandwich is dunked (or dipped, depending on your preference) into the beef drippings. In 2021, the Lims, along with chef Neola D’Souza, set out to introduce the Italian Beef to the Toronto masses, opening Marq’s Chicago Beef at Market 707. “Being new entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs, it feels really risky to dive head-first into a business — especially if you’re looking at opening a brick-and-mortar location. It comes with a lot of risk and responsibility,” says Ryan. By operating out of a shipping container, “we get rid of a lot of our overhead costs and worries so that we can build a small business that Toronto has never seen before.” The roll is proving just as popular here as it is down in Illinois: The team at Marq’s consistently sells out before their 7:00 p.m. closing time.
“One of our biggest challenges is educating people on what an Italian beef is,” says Ryan. “It’s so special to Chicago that there aren’t many people who really know about it — aside from people who moved from Chicago, or people who watched [the Chicago-set restaurant show] The Bear. “
Co-owner of Little Sister Bakery Akash Swar speaks with Market 707 neighbour Su Jin Won from Sulee Dosirak. Photo: The Local StoryLab
Little Sister Baking
Year opened: 2021
Type of food: Desi desserts
Tanvi and Akash Swar started Little Sister Baking as an at-home social media–based business: Akash is a trained pastry chef and was out of a job during the pandemic, so the sisters killed time during lockdown playing around with their favourite Indian treats. Akash posted the results on Instagram — a coconut barfi cake, a Paris-Brest made with Alphonso mangoes and cardamom mousseline — and the DMs followed. “A bunch of friends asked if they could buy our products after that, so we started very organically,” says Tanvi, who works with Akash on the marketing.
By January 2021, the two had registered a business name and were looking for a kitchen when they found Market 707. Now, Little Sister Baking is a must-visit for unique desserts and Desi flavours, most notably their little Mithai boxes, which are desserts-filled gift boxes given to a host when you visit their home for Diwali. Growing up in Dubai and India, the sisters experienced Diwali as “two weeks of non-stop events, parties, dinners and dancing with friends, family and loved ones,” Tanvi says. But after the pair moved to Canada, it became a more muted affair. So once they opened Little Sister Baking, “we decided that we’d had enough of the sad, tragic Diwalis and came up with this menu because it was a way for us to celebrate with our community,” she says. “With Little Sister Baking desserts on tables in Toronto, it felt like we were celebrating with everyone, and it felt like a piece of home again.”
“We’re trying to do something new and interesting in the Indian food space,” says Tanvi. “It’s been a challenge to come up with new things and compete with ourselves. We’re always trying to do something better than what we did last year — or last month.”
Update: Subsequent to the reporting of this story, Little Sister Baking has closed.
Read the next story at the Metcalf Foundation’s website: Taking the Gig Out of Work