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'It's a death sentence': Local Toronto grocery store told it can no longer serve coffee

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A cup of coffee is keeping a small business in Toronto alive – but it could also be a death sentence.

With a small espresso brewing behind the counter, Yana Miriev says that her decision to serve coffee in her local grocery store has both saved her business and put her in a battle with city hall.

“We know that the store is not sustainable without the coffee service. And we'll have to shut it down without it,” she says.

Miriev is the owner of Finch Store, located on a residential street near Ossington Avenue and Harbord Street. She purchased the business two years ago and soon after they ran into trouble. Then, she looked at her licence and saw an opportunity.

“The licence says grocery store with refreshments. And before we installed equipment for the coffee shop, I sent a little inquiry to the municipality to ask if we are allowed to serve coffee and baked goods in the store, and the answer was, 'Yes,'" she said.

After getting the go ahead from the licencing department, coffee sales brought in more business. It also generated an anonymous complaint to bylaw officers. Because the store is on a residential street it is only zoned as a retail variety store.

In a statement the city of Toronto said in part, “Any change of use from a Retail Grocery/Variety Store is not permitted; and that includes store staff preparing food or drinks (or coffees) for sale to patrons.”

A bylaw officer visited the store and soon afterwards the licencing department sent a letter asking Miriev to consent to the store's licence being downgraded.

She says, “I can not do that because it's a death sentence for me, for the business.”

Since then, members of the community have rallied around the store. Over 1,000 people have signed an in-store petition and another 1,700 signed one online.

According to the city of Toronto, changes could be coming to the bylaw that would allow places like this to sell things like coffee. But the question is, will it happen in time?

Within their statement the city of Toronto said staff are working on an amendment to the bylaw and “the proposed Zoning By-law Amendment as written would permit a Retail store, with the option to include an ancillary eating establishment or take-out eating establishment, provided that the preparation and sale of food and beverages is limited to hot beverages and low-risk or pre-packaged, ready-to-eat food items.”

Those recommendations may not come until the end of the year and would then need to pass through council. Miriev is allowed to continue serving coffee while they wait for a hearing with the Toronto Licencing Tribunal.

“The timing is very sensitive,” she says. “It's a very important point when it's going to happen and if we're going to have the tribunal before or after, the law will be changed.”

So for now, they continue not knowing who will act first. That could be the difference between thriving and going out of business.  

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