The approvals process for Toronto’s popular outdoor dining program, CaféTO, will be speedier and easier for the 2024 patio season, according to Mayor Olivia Chow.
At a Monday news conference outside Red Rocket Café on the Danforth, Chow announced three major changes to ensure establishments would be approved and ready to go early next year:
Businesses that already successfully applied for CafeTO in 2023, will know whether they’re approved for next year by the end of November.
New applicants will be able to apply in January. Chow promised that at least 90 per cent of applications would be approved by mid-April.
City staff will install safety equipment starting May 1, with the goal of patios being open latest by Victoria Day long weekend.
“By setting these timelines, these deadlines, small business owners, BIAs, local residents will know what to expect and can plan ahead,” Chow said.
She says the new deadlines will be presented in a report to council later this month.
Changes meant to address slow approvals process
The changes come after a patio season full of complaints from business owners in the food service industry. A number of applicants were still waiting for approval in June, and restaurateurs complained the lengthy process cost them money.
Chow, who was elected mayor in June, apologized to those businesses, acknowledging the process “was a bit messy.”
CaféTO was introduced in 2020 as public health measures during the pandemic restricted indoor dining. It allows restaurants and bars to expand outdoor spaces onto sidewalks and curb lanes from spring to fall. Feedback from the industry and the public was mostly positive, per a fall 2022 survey. A city-funded study found the program generated more than $203 million in economic benefits last year, with more than 1,300 businesses taking part.
The program became permanent this year and its application woes became part of the mayoral race, with Chow vowing to make it faster and easier to get approval for a patio during her campaign.
In 2023, about 1,000 outdoor patios participated in the program, according to the city. Chow says the process has been streamlined now, which, along with earlier deadlines, should prevent future delays.
Patios have been ‘lifeline’ for restaurateurs
Moving up application deadlines will provide business owners with much-needed notice, said John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, at Monday’s announcement.
“The one thing that business community really needs is predictability,” Kiru said.
Billy Dertilis, Red Rocket Café’s owner who also runs his local BIA, says he’s happy the city has made the CafeTO program permanent, and is trying to improve the process.
“This has definitely been a lifeline for restaurant operators,” he said.
Complaints from business owners about the fees associated with the program were not addressed at Monday’s announcement.
The city planned to re-introduce a one-time $865 application fee for CafeTO this year, in addition to annual fees based on square footage. However, following industry complaints, council voted to phase those fees in over three years.
Application fees were $285 for 2023, while the annual permit fee was $14.56 per square metre for sidewalk patios and $43.70 per square metre for curb lane patios. Those fees will double in 2024.