Leila Batten left the St. Lawrence Market for good last summer. It took several drafts to get the sign right, to find the right words to announce she was closing her shop, Whitehouse Meats, after running it for 30 years.
“Store closing forever Sunday of Labour Day weekend,” the sign read. “Leila is retiring.”
The sign is still there, five months later, and her stall is still empty. The 1,000-square-foot space is prime real estate, a so-called anchor tenant in the centre of the main floor of the downtown Toronto market, right in the thick of it. A few dozen paces away, another former butcher shop — Sausage King — has been empty since October.
The two vacancies have started making people at the market nervous. For some, these dark stalls and their unplugged display cases are a symbol of sorts, a reminder that the market is a lot different than it used to be and that may not be good for everybody who runs a business here.
“Things have changed,” Batten said. “Don’t ask me whether it’s better or worse.”
Over the past two years, the city of Toronto has been trying to modernize the 221-year-old food market to attract more shoppers and tourists in an era of convenience. In a bid to bring in more people, the city, which owns the building and acts as landlord to all the shops there, decided to extend operating hours in 2022, mandating that all businesses at the market be open on Sunday. And by some accounts, it’s working. Revenues are up across the board, the city says, and shopkeepers report that tourists are flocking to the market by the busload.
But to really understand what’s going on, according to some of the veteran shopkeepers at the market, look a bit closer at the mess of people, packed cheek to jowl on the main floor on a Saturday or Sunday, especially in the summer.
“Just look at the people carrying bags,” Batten said.
A lot of them aren’t. That’s fine for the shops that have leases with clauses that allow them to sell prepared food because, at the market, tourists buy peameal bacon sandwiches, a bit of cheese or pastry, a souvenir, maybe a fruit cup from one of the green grocers. What they don’t buy is a basket full of vegetables for the week. They skip the steaks and salmon, too, no good bringing those back to a hotel room. It’s gotten to the point that some of the old guard here are worried they’re being squeezed out.
What they’re really afraid of, it seems, is that the city is attracting more and more people who are coming to watch the market in action, not be part of the action. The problem with that is, if the market tries too hard to cater to tourists, it risks becoming another fancy food court. And the shops that have been the core of the market for centuries — the butchers, grocers and fish mongers — will stop making sense.
“This is a market, not a museum,” Spiro Spiropoulous, owner of La Boucherie Fine Meats, who has worked as a butcher at the market for more than 40 years, said one day last week, in between bagging ground meat and breaking down turkeys.
He gestured toward the two shuttered butcher stops.
“Look at what happened,” he said. “One, two, gone.”
The Sunday sap
Batten bought Whitehouse in the early 1990s with her late husband, Kelly, who had worked there as a butcher under the previous owners. Previously, Batten worked underneath the butcher shop at a restaurant in the lower level of the market. After Kelly died a few years later, on the Sunday of Labour Day in 1993, Batten decided to run it on her own. “I used to run restaurants,” she remembered thinking to herself. “What’s the difference between restaurants and a butcher shop?”
At the time, the market was a different place. There were barely any tourists, she said. It was mostly locals and big families who drove in from the suburbs to buy meat to fill their chest freezers.
“The market had a lot of things that you couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Batten, who turns 63 at the end of the month. “We all had our own little niche.”
She couldn’t really put her finger on when, but at some point, that started to change. The families stopped coming in from the 905 at the same rate, likely because specialty food shops popped up closer to home and supermarkets got better at carrying a wider selection of products. Other veteran store owners at the market blame the worsening downtown traffic and parking troubles — though city staff point to a handful of Green P lots within walking distance, and more spots on the way as part of the new North Market complex, which will house the farmers market, across the street, expected to open this spring.
Then there was the “National Geographic” list of the 10 best food markets in the world, which in 2011 put St. Lawrence Market right at the top. Among the veterans at the market, that list is talked about like the beginning of something, a turning point, when crowds of tourists started coming.
Mario Aricci has worked at the market since he was nine years old. He’s 65 now, and owns Ponesse Foods — one of the vegetable shops that run side by side on the north end of the main floor.
“This has become more of a tourist market, in my opinion,” he said, adding that in the summer, “there’s busloads of people coming every hour.”
But he’s adapted. He figured out ways to appeal to tourists, shifting to more pre-cut veggies and fruit as snacks, and now Sundays are one of the main reasons he’s profitable.
For a few years, in the pandemic, things changed back. Tourists disappeared and with restaurants mostly closed, people were shopping more for food to cook at home. People lined up outside the market, which at the time had limited its indoor capacity. “Everybody in that lineup was a customer,” Batten said. “I made extremely good money.”
But by 2022, things changed again. The city decided to open the market on Sundays and extend operating hours during the week, to 7 p.m. from 6 p.m. At the time, then-mayor John Tory said the extension would “ensure that more people — residents and visitors to our city — have the opportunity to experience this amazing, historic Toronto destination.” On the first Sunday the market opened, the first 2,000 visitors got a free, reusable shopping bag.
The Sunday question had been a controversial subject among store owners at the market for years. A city-run poll in the spring of 2022 found only a third of merchants in the main market building were interested in opening on Sundays. The city went ahead with it anyway, and now estimates an average of 5,000 to 8,000 visitors on Sundays, said Samantha Wiles, a spokesperson for the market.
After a year of Sundays, a new poll last summer found it was growing on merchants at the market, with 57 per cent now believing it was good for business.
‘Those customers are gone’
While the changes helped drive more tourists into the market, Wiles argues that the extra traffic can end up benefitting butchers and other shops that sell raw products. She said tour operators have reported that they get a lot of locals on their tours, coming to see the market for the first time. She said the new hours also help the market fit into the schedules of locals, many living in condos in the neighbourhood, who are used to the longer hours of big supermarket chains.
“The locals are the primary target audience,” said Wiles. “The tourists … they’re secondary.”
But the locals are also different than they used to be, said Tom Antonarakis, who closed his fish shop at the market, St. Lawrence Fish Market, in 2022 and opened a sandwich shop, Stack’d Deli Kitchen, in its place last year.
“It was getting tough for me to sell fish,” he said.
Now, he said, locals in the area are single, or couples, living in smaller condos, not the big families who used to come from the suburbs. And people in condos buy a single filet for that evening’s dinner, not a whole side of salmon. They don’t have the freezer space.
The city says Sundays are working. In 2023, the first full year of extended hours, sales for all of the roughly 60 vendors combined at the main South Market building totalled $61 million, up almost $10 million from 2022. In both 2020 and 2021, sales hovered around $40 million, well below pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, it was $52 million, according to Wiles.
The problem for Batten at Whitehouse Meats is that after the new hours kicked in, she found she wasn’t getting home until 8 p.m. during the week. Her son, who has a disability and lives with her, only saw her at dinner, and in the morning as she headed out the door. She couldn’t afford to add more staff to cover her so she could take Sunday off, and even if she could, she said part of the magic of the market is getting to know the characters behind the counter — the owners, and often their spouses and kids. It’s part of the theatre of the place, and Batten had a role in it.
“I always said to my staff, if people didn’t want to talk to you they’d be in a supermarket picking up their own food,” Batten said. “The market is the people that run these businesses.”
For Whitehouse Meats, the extra day open on Sundays didn’t boost sales, she said. Saturday sales dropped, Sunday made up for it, but it was essentially a wash, despite the longer hours.
“I had no life at home left,” she said. “So that was my personal decision. Family over business.”
She put up her forever sign and left. Sausage King, which was operated by the local retail chain Bespoke Butchers, closed a month later. Wiles, the city spokesperson, said the Sausage King closed because the business wasn’t “financially sustainable.” (Last month, Bespoke shut down completely, closing its three remaining butcher shops due to financial difficulty.)
“There’s not really blame, you know, there’s no blame,” said Batten, a few months into retirement, sitting on her couch watching the Food Network with her son and her second husband, Geoff. “It’s just things change, right? Things change and people change.”
As of this week, both shops were still empty.
Some of the regulars who used to shop at Whitehouse now end up at the next stall over, Di Liso’s Fine Meats, run by a younger generation of businesspeople at the market.
Jamie Lawson, the 38-year-old manager at Di Liso’s, doesn’t see the shifting mix of customers as a bad thing, necessarily. The tourists don’t do much for sales at his butcher shop, but Lawson sees them as a walking advertising department, taking photos and videos and posting them online.
There was a couple who were waiting for takeout at Stack’d Deli, who wandered up to his shop and started talking to him. It was their first time at the market, he said, but they weren’t tourists. They lived in the city and came down because they’d seen a video about the tricolour sauce at St. Lawrence Pizza and Pasta.
“It was a big TikTok viral thing,” he said. The couple ended up buying a Wagyu steak.
In with the new
The market’s management office is across the Esplanade from the South Market building, in the ground floor of an affordable housing complex. Daniel Picheca, the city’s manager of the market, walks the floor three times a day, once in the morning when it opens, another at lunch hour and before he leaves.
“On Saturdays, I do 10,000 to 20,000 steps,” he said.
Regular shoppers at the market recognize him when he’s walking around. They stop him to talk. Lately, he said, on Saturday mornings, some of the regulars and business owners have started asking about what’s going on with the empty stalls.
He’s also aware of the complaints about the new hours, and the food court anxieties. But none of them are warranted, Picheca said. As the manager of the place, he said, he won’t let it happen.
“We’re not interested in turning this into a food hall,” he said in his office last week.
In its latest strategic plan for the market, one of the city’s main goals was to make the offerings more diverse, since at this point, the types of stores and food at the city’s biggest market don’t reflect the people who live here. There’s no Caribbean businesses at the market, for example, Picheca said. He also wants to bring in Indigenous businesses.
The market also changed its rules, two years ago, to allow tenants to close their shops for one week at the beginning of January for vacation, as a way of addressing the concerns around work-life balance among some of the owners, Picheca said. He is also considering a review of “use clauses” in tenants’ leases, which restrict businesses in the market to sell one thing or another. Most butchers’ lease clauses, save for a few exceptions, restrict them to selling only raw meat. Picheca said he wants to look the possibility of expanding those, to allow more shops that specialize in raw products to also offer prepared foods for the tourists and lookers.
But that doesn’t mean Picheca will allow, say, butchers to morph into sandwich shops. When shop owners sell their existing business, the city has the right to approve the new tenant coming in. The general practice, he said, is that if a business leaves, the next one has to be offering similar goods. It’s not a strict, butcher in, butcher out, sort of rule. More that if the previous owner was selling raw ingredients, the next one should be doing something similar.
As for the recent change, from a fish monger to the Stack’d Deli Kitchen, Picheca said it was a one-off, meant to fill a gap in the market’s offerings, which was light on fresh salad, and Stack’d was doing salads.
“We want an authentic public market,” he said.
Picheca said he is in the final stages of negotiating new tenants for both spaces, who should be taking over the space within “weeks.” He wouldn’t name the businesses, since the agreements haven’t been finalized, but he said they won’t be sandwich shops or takeout spots. Both businesses are planning renovations, so they won’t be open until sometime in the spring.
The search for new tenants has taken so long, he said, for a range of reasons. The holiday break contributed. And in the Whitehouse case, it involved the sale of Batten’s business — a complex process that usually takes four months, Picheca said.
He’s also been trying to make sure he picks the right successors. The market isn’t short on suitors; it has a list of businesses that have expressed interest in taking over an empty spot, whenever one comes up. But Picheca has put the prospective new tenants for Whitehouse and Sausage King through a process, laid out in the city’s leasing guidelines, that involves interviews, credit checks, as well as reviewing financial projections, a business plan and debt obligations.
“We’re very specific,” he said. “We don’t want to just turn over the space to anyone.”
Now he’s about to be tested on just how much he means it, when his new tenants take over the empty spaces in the heart of the market.