It's frigid outside now, but Toronto is already planning for the 2024 patio season.
On Monday, the city opened applications for the CaféTO curb lane patio program, promising an improved experience for restaurateurs after a 2023 season rife with challenges and delays. The program began as a pandemic measure but is now heading into its second permanent year.
Business owners told CBC Toronto last summer that a disorganized process led to delays in opening their patios, costing them valuable time to host patrons outside during Toronto's short summer season.
The city consulted with business owners to try to solve last year's issues, said Barbara Gray, Toronto's general manager of transportation services. As a result, she says the process is starting earlier. Last year, applications opened in February.
Gray says about 220 business operators who are returning to the program have already been sent pre-approval notices.
"We don't need to redo all of the safety setup [and] traffic control plans," she said. "Those are already something they can use again, and they can take advantage of that and make it a much more streamlined process."
Along with pre-approvals, the city says it's created a more user friendly online application portal and increased staff support for businesses as they work their way through the steps.
Gray says the city's goal is to have 90 per cent of participating businesses set up by Victoria Day weekend in May.
Bar owner optimistic city can hit target
That's welcome news for Nicky Potter, co-owner of The Painted Lady bar and live music venue on Toronto's popular Ossington Avenue, south of Dundas Street W.
Potter's bar has been participating in the program since its inception and she was elated to see it become a permanent part of the city's summer programming. However, she says last year her CaféTO patio wasn't ready until late June.
"[The summer] season is so short and so important to all main street businesses," she said.
"It was a little disheartening last year when it took so long for us to be able to open up."
Nicky Potter, co-owner of The Painted Lady bar and live music venue, is confident the city will be able to roll out patios quicker this year. (Prasanjeet Choudhury/CBC)
Potter is confident the Victoria Day target can be hit.
"We have no reason to believe that it won't happen. This city hall that we're working with right now is very responsive," she said. "They really want to make stuff happen."
Improving the program was something Mayor Olivia Chow promised to do during her byelection campaign. As frustration mounted last summer, she vowed to start the program earlier and to make the application process easier, quicker and more transparent.
Less like a construction site, more like a cafe
Last year's application process was "a big puzzle," said Meg Marshall, manager of the Ossington BIA.
"As much as I had moments of wanting to pull my hair out, I have a very strong appreciation for all the different components that need to make it happen," she said.
After the challenges of last year, Marshall sent a four-page letter to the city with feedback on how the program could be improved.
She's hopeful the changes will make this year's program better. She's particularly excited to see the improved patio installation timelines the city is aiming for.
Meg Marshall, manager of the Ossington BIA, described last year's application process as 'a big puzzle.' (Prasanjeet Choudhury/CBC)
One of the other changes she's happy about is the opportunity for the patios to look a little better. In previous years, the standard CaféTO appearance has been grey barriers with bright orange pylons.
"I cannot confirm or discuss if we may have taken our own measures to do some guerilla marketing on some of them," Marshall said of last year's setups, some of which were spray painted in bright colours with the words "meet me on Ossington."
The barriers used for patios this year will look nicer than during previous summers, the city says. (Submitted by Meg Marshall)
Gray says the biggest visual changes will be removing a lot of the orange cones of years past and painting the grey barriers. She says the city heard from many people who wanted the patios to look less like construction sites.
However, she says, how they'll be painted hasn't been finalized just yet.
"We'll listen for a little while and see if we can get to a good solution there," Gray said.
"Something bright and vibrant that says, 'I want to eat here."