Culinary News

The “New” Old East Village Food District: Culinary Innovation and Incubation

Old East Village
Bryan Lavery
Written by Bryan Lavery

 

Old East Village

London’s Old East Village

Good things are happening in London’s Old East Village, with the rehabilitation of London’s once-beleaguered Dundas Street East. Two decades ago, this corridor initiated a burgeoning indie streak that made it a destination for artist and musicians and “pickers” to source retro furniture and accessories. Today, a sense of optimism is pervasive.

Old East Village is just a stone’s throw east of downtown London. It is bordered to the north by the CP rail yard at Central Ave, to the west by Adelaide Street, to the south by the CN rail lines at York Street, and to the east by Ashland Avenue and the CN/CP feeder lines at Kellogg’s on Dundas Street. One of the oldest and most culturally-diverse neighbourhoods of London, Old East Village is  known for its “friendly front porch mentality,” and the corridor has a hip reputation for the avant-garde and as a haven for artists and musicians whose support has helped sustain important cultural venues such as the Aeolian Hall, the Palace Theatre, and the Potter’s Guild.

In recent times the area has seen a new arrival of foodies, hipsters, musicians, artists, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. Recently opened, creative independent businesses like Unique Food Attitudes at Dundas and Lyle and The Root Cellar Organic Cafe near Dundas and Adelaide add another level of sophistication to the OEV. Both businesses are innovative, stylish and original.

Barbara Czyz has operated Unique Food Attitudes as a catering business for 17 years. Right behind her chic storefront bistro, Medallion Development is completing a 324-unit residential tower with move-in slated for the start of the fall school session. A second tower is in progress. The restaurant has been an instant success due to its modern European sensibility, changing chalkboard menu offerings, fabulous food, and warm hospitality.

In late July, the On the Move Organics cooperative opened their latest initiative, the funky Root Cellar Organic Juice Bar & Café on Dundas Street just east of Adelaide, next door to the St. Regis Tavern. The team serves a healthy, seasonal menu featuring cooking and baking with mostly local and organic ingredients. This is where locals go when they are looking for a filling breakfast, a simple and healthy lunch, or evidence that organic muffins are yummier than conventional. In addition to ethically sourced coffee and tea, the café also features a fresh juice and smoothie bar, where local denizens can pick from an expansive selection of nutritious, energizing, detoxifying, or just plain refreshing drinks.

A few doors east on Dundas, a 72-unit seniors’ housing development is nearing completion. The $12-million redevelopment received funding from three levels of government and fills a gap in the streetscape left years ago by Hudson’s department store and, later, the Centretown Mall. Local developer Jen Stickling has spoken about ideas for an organic local food market and a café and community kitchen on the storefront ground level space.

The Old East Village Business Improvement Association (OEVBIA)is directed by manager Sarah Merritt. A dynamic grassroots-driven revitalization initiative, it works in partnership with the City of London and the Old East Village Community Association.

Identified as a “food desert” in 2008 by a study co-authored by Dr. Jason Gilliland of Western University, the OEV is quickly emerging as a burgeoning local food and arts district. In follow-up analysis, it was discovered that the formation of the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market (WFFAM) has significantly elevated the selection and lowered the cost of nutritional foods available in an area that had previously been without access to retailers of healthy, affordable food.

Further collaborative research (led by OEVBIA Researcher, Michael Clark) has identified how the Market has had a substantial economic bearing on the community. Grocery prices in the neighbourhood have decreased by almost 12% in 3 years.

Several local culinary and agricultural initiatives are dedicated to developing and advancing the OEV and the market as a recognized, year-round culinary tourism destination, with authentic and diverse offerings of unique local products and cultural experiences.

One of the core objectives of the OEV Economic Development Plan is to generate business growth through innovative partnerships (both local and regional) and to kick-start projects that build upon the success of the WFFAM as a food-business incubator. One of the proposed projects will be targeted at an emerging sector in which the community has a comparative advantage:  a local agri-food hub.

Dave Cook, proprietor of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company, Habitual Chocolate Roasters, and  the WFFAM, continues the weekly tradition of Saturday market days. Located at the historic Confederation building, the WFFAM has established itself as an innovative business incubator, neighbourhood social centre, and community tradition.

Cook points out, “In attempting to change the area’s economy, one of the key initiatives is to promote entrepreneurialism.” Cook’s businesses have a social consciousness and fit into a new economic reality that is transforming retail: folks dedicated to sourcing quality, ethical, healthy food, and concerned about where it originates.

The term artisanal, overused as it may be, is not mere artifice but something palpable and authentic in the case of the WFFAM. Market-goers love the market because they can buy high-quality farm-fresh products directly from the people who produced them and can find unique products they won’t discover anywhere else in the city.

The neighbourhood loves the market because it brings people together and has transformed a former culinary desert into a hive of productivity, attracting entrepreneurs, culinary artisans and innovative thinkers. The market also serves as an anchor for community life by providing a setting for interactive cultural and civic activities in London’s Old East Village.

The market also has an unsurpassed variety of artisan bakers who bring in their fresh-baked products every Saturday morning: Chef Theo Korthof’s in-house Flair Bakery, Allan Mallioux’s Downie Street Bakery from Stratford, and Burdan’s Red Cat Farm (seasonal) from Goderich.  Lindsay’s Bakery developed out of a natural entrepreneurial enthusiasm and a desire to share really good baking. From his bake kitchen in the cellar of his Sebringville home, Lindsay Reid and his sister Mari-Jane hand-craft deliciousness.

Farmers’ markets are ideal “incubators,” Sarah Merritt says, because they offer entrepreneurs both low startup costs and opportunities to get immediate feedback from shoppers sampling the wares. The WFFAM, which draws between 2,500 and 3,200 people Saturdays, has become an informal incubator for new businesses that can then expand by creating store-front locations in the community and across the city.

Some of the expansions are True Taco (which is moving to a larger location across the street from its present location) and The Root Cellar, the organic cafe that just opened as a natural extension of the On the Move Organics business model. Flair Bakery, which will be renamed the Artisan Bakery, is slated to open kitty-corner to WFFAM in the early fall. Sweet Lemon Bakery recently opened downtown. Fire Roasted Coffee is positioned to open a high-profile flagship location downtown, across from the Covent Garden Market.

The creation and success of the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market has quickly changed the neighbourhood’s centre of gravity. The WFFAM is home to an emerging community of culinary professionals who are actively fostering the development of a distinctive food district and promoting innovation in food and sustainable strategies for the development of quality culinary practices.

In the present stage of the revitalization initiative, the OEV BIA has reinforced its partnership with the Western Fair District to create a local economic development plan for the Old East Village. In this research phase, the BIA, the Western Fair District, and a range of local partners are expected to explore opportunities to develop educational and awareness opportunities around food production and consumption, technological exchange and learning opportunities between farmers and the community, and closer interaction between agri-food producers and users, in order to foster innovation and business expansion activities in the Old East Village.

The Old East BIA is also receiving support from an investment impact group that works out of the innovative MaRS think tank in Toronto and brings together thought leaders to engage with a variety of stakeholders. “They feel the community-based model in Old East Village can be duplicated across Canada,” Merritt says.

 

Among his many culinary pursuits, Bryan Lavery is also the Artisans` Market Manager for the Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market. Bryan can be reached at blavery@eatdrink.ca.

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.