The park cafe that community built

[This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/15 issue of Spacing Magazine, so you’ll have to forgive the opening paragraph. But isn’t it great that it’s spring now and warmer weather is around the corner instead of colder?]

It’s an early autumn Saturday afternoon and the chill in the air hints at colder weather around the corner. A hot coffee would hit the spot. Luckily, the shipping container café by the basketball court is open for business.

“All our packaging is biodegadeable,” I’m informed as I’m handed my Americano and veggie samosa. I wrap my hands around the cup, settle down on a bench, and enjoy a coffee from Toronto’s first shipping container café in a park.

McCormick Park, located southwest of Dundas Street and Dufferin Street, is not a park hurting for amenities. In its 1.5 hectares, there is a recreation centre with an indoor pool, a skating arena, a bocce court, a little free library, a basketball court, a wading pool, a baseball field, and a playground.

The park also benefits from an engaged group of residents called the Friends of McCormick Park who help care for an animate the space. When this group surveyed the community on what they wanted to see in the park, food was a frequent answer.

Friends group member Adriana Beemans says she and her colleagues were inspired by the community-drive café in Dufferin Grove Park.

“It helps strengthen community,” she says. “There’s something nice about sharing a coffee and talking with someone—it makes it more of a community gathering space.”

Offering food and drinks can also help animate a park in the winter, getting people outside in the cold and dreary months. “In the evening, having hot chocolate or apple cider makes that experience much nicer,” Beemans says.

Unfortunately in Toronto, being able to buy food from a café in a park is rare—even more rare is finding food that isn’t pizza, hot dogs, or hamburgers. The Friends wanted food that was local and healthy.

City Councillor Ana Bailão was supportive of the idea and approached the arena about opening up the building’s unused kitchen to the park, but they weren’t interested.

Enter that ubiquitous symbol of urban pop-ups everywhere: the shipping container.

Bailao contacted Kevin Lee at Scadding Court Community Centre, which launched the successful Market 707 shipping container market and has developed “Business out of the Box” program to bring the idea to other communities. SCCC advised on the park café project, obtaining and outfitting the shipping container for café use. The cost was covered by the City of Toronto’s community benefit funds from the Planning Act, Section 37.

The café is being run by Aangen Community Centre, a non-profit social service agency that relies on projects like the café, rather than grants, to funds its programs. It was important to have a non-profit run the café, Beemans says, so that any profit is put back into the community.

Aangen’s philosophy is about creating healthy lives and healthy communities, Executive Director Gurbeen Bhasin says. The café offers work experience and local employment for those who are in need, and she’s quick to point out that they use all local farm products and serve organic, fair trade coffee, all for under $5.

“Aangen has been wonderful in working with us in finding healthy snacks at an affordable price point,” Beemans says.

The café also helps tie the community centre in with the park, Bailão says, bringing more programming outdoors. “We have to stop thinking about programming just inside the four walls of the community centres and bring it outside.”

Indeed, Bhasin was excited speaking about the potential for activities centered around the café, from nutrition classes to movie nights to Sunday brunch. “We can explore lots of things,” she says.

Bailão hopes to see the idea replicated in other parks. There has been “great interest” from other councillors already, she says.

However, she adds that City parks staff had been somewhat concerned that shipping container cafes might quickly start popping up in parks around the city, so the McCormick Park Café will be studied for a year as a pilot project. “I’m sure there’s going to be some growing pains.”

Meanwhile, Bhasin says residents are still discovering the café, but first impressions are often positive. “They’re like, ‘wow, we didn’t know this was here,’” she says. “They’re excited about it.”

“I think people are truly impressed that we did this,” Bhasin says. “And it’s fun. It’s like, can this really happen?”

Photo by Heather Jarvis