This article appeared in the Toronto Star and was published on June 2, 2015
Five years in, Market 707, Toronto’s inaugural shipping container emporium is such a success city council has approved exporting the concept to other neighbourhoods.
The centre is working with Toronto Community Housing to replicate the initiative — coined Business of Out of the Box — in two of the city’s designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas by next year.
The primary aims of Market 707, located outside Scadding Court Community Centre, are to assist start-ups, non-profits and low-income entrepreneurs, who can rent the refurbished containers, equipped with running water and electricity for an affordable $11 to $26 a day — and improve access to goods and services in socio-economically challenged areas.
The shipping container marketplace was designed as a sustainable way to reduce poverty in the community, according to Kevin Lee, Scadding Court’s executive director. “We were sick and tired of just talking about it.”
Scadding Court will help city-approved franchisees finance and set up their business, and in turn collect an annual 20 per cent franchising fee. Projections have operators recouping their capital investments, such as the $17,000-$50,000 cost of one 40-foot container, which can host up to four businesses, from vendors’ rental income within three to five years.
Established in 2011 with eight stalls, Market 707 is now home to 18 enterprises, mostly street food, from roti to poutine to Japanese fried chicken. Vendors sign a one-year lease and the average turnover is two stalls each year as merchants move on to bricks-and-mortar, or change direction. There are 126 businesses on the waiting list.
On a recent tour, Lee pointed out room on the pathway could double the offerings and transform the market into a significant retail hub.
In the warm months, the eats can be enjoyed in bistro-style seating along the sidewalk; but the cold chills commerce, said the director. “The businesses that are successful are getting into catering in the winter,” he explained, citing the containers’ lack of indoor seating or counter space as a “design flaw.”
“No one’s going to stand outside waiting for poutine for three minutes at minus 30. The idea came from when we were doing a youth exchange in Ghana; and we didn’t adapt it for the Canadian winter. The next ones we do, we will rectify that.”
A 2013 evaluation of the market undertaken by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and LGA Architectural Partners encouraged Lee to sign up more service businesses and non-food retail.
Consequently, Market 707 (named after its address on Dundas St. W.) is now home to clothing boutique Likkle-N-Cute, Mini Mani Manicure, Sellteck cellphone repair and Off the Grid Cuts barbershop, which opened two weeks ago.
By day, Drew Bosworth, 24, is a junior technical analyst with Scotiabank; his after-hours alter ego is Barberfromthe6. “Cutting hair is my passion and I was looking to open my own shop and I was walking by and saw an opportunity here,” he said.
The Ryerson study also identified the need to coach and advise the businesses in fundamental areas, such as pricing, taxation systems, marketing and accessing government supports, to help them achieve their potential, said Wendy Cukier, vice-president of Research and Innovation at Ryerson.
“Especially if you’re a newcomer to Canada, or if you don’t have high literacy skills, or if English is not your first language, there are even more obstacles to that,” she said.
The Market 707 vendors include educated young entrepreneurs like Bosworth, pensioners looking to stretch their retirement income and marginalized people seeking a way up. “It’s a variety of different people that we have here,” said Lee. “They’re not all just poor. You have to have a mix, both culturally and socio-economically.”
Starting this week, a new commercial container kitchen, located behind the community centre, will be available 24-7 to professional and non-profit chefs and caterers, as well as culinary gifted amateurs, for an introductory rate of $10-$15 hour.
Equipped with a walk-in cooler, high-efficiency dishwasher and propane generator, the sleek $100,000 kitchen is key to “a micro-economic development continuum,” said Lee.
The three-pronged business model involves a producer (say, a low-income parent who makes great samosas); a logistics person to deliver them to the urban markets Scadding Court and Ward Councillor Joe Cressy have established with nearby residential developers at Spadina-Bremner and Bathurst-Niagara Sts.; and a third person (perhaps a youth trainee) selling them at a stall to the high-income condo dwellers.
“We’re creating three businesses out of that kitchen,” said Lee. “It also creates a revenue stream for us as a non-profit to keep this thing sustainable.” The city covered 70 per cent of the cost of the kitchen and Scadding Court, which has realized a 188 per cent increase in Market 707 revenues since 2011, put in the rest.
“I find it’s better than investing in GICs,” said Lee. “Within three years we get all our money back and we create a revenue stream for the programs that we do. That’s why we’re able to afford the afterschool programs which nobody wants to fund; the walking school bus; free basketball in Alexander Park; ski trips for the kids.
“We’re interested in even marketing this (container kitchen concept) to the private sector. It can be used for mining camps and oil rigs. I don’t count on the public dollar. It’s not there; especially if you’re downtown.
“That’s why we’re coming up with ways and means.”