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Monday, January 26, 2015

Why are Toronto's kid-friendly cafes closing?

kid friendly cafe torontoIn recent years, more couples are deciding to raise children in the downtown core. In the area south of Queen between University and Dufferin alone, the percentage of children under age five has grown by 65 per cent since 2006. But, oddly, businesses that have come to life in order to support these families are closing up shop.

The spots that are closing are built on a cafe-style model. Parents or other caregivers can come in with children in tow and not expect a gaggle of bespectacled 20-somethings to glare up at them in annoyance, interrupted from clacking away on their weathered MacBooks. Rather, these places are created for children. Play is encouraged. Noise is expected. So are copious messes.

So, if the face of Toronto is growing ever younger, why are places like Leslieville's Little Bean n Green closing its doors? Roncey's Smock will close at the end of the month, and Playful Grounds shuttered last year. Rumour has it Play Cafe, at Bayview and Leaside, is in the process of a move to Peterborough, but they didn't respond to my request for comment.

I reach Smock's owner, Sara Wood, on the phone to ask what's going on with her business. The culprit, according to Wood, was the final phasing in of all-day kindergarten this past September.

"The impact has been huge. We used to be full pretty much every day, at least for lunch. Now it's empty, [except for] maybe groups of moms with babies on mat leave."

She says her revenue is less than half of what it was before nearby schools had all-day kindergarten.

Wood explains that the business is more than a mom-and-baby drop-in, and includes arts programming and crafts. "We're really geared to provide enriched activities outside of school for school-aged kids. Now that all these four and five year olds are sequestered away in school, they just don't need the programming. Parents and caregivers don't have these half-days they need to fill with activities."

She stresses that she can only speak for herself, and not for other, similar businesses that have closed their doors.

Wood laments that there is no government programming in place to support child-centred businesses. She also faces some competition from creative parents in the area who are starting up their own small businesses in the form of piano lessons or art classes.

She concedes there are flaws in the business plan she went with, too. Many families in Roncey are dual-income, and that means children's nannies would often bring them to the space instead of their parents. But families don't always bestow the nannies with the added cash to bring children to a play space because, as Wood puts it, "they are already shelling out for a nanny."

And for other families, the stay-at-home parent will often be at their lowest earning potential because they don't work outside of the home, so they may not have the cash to spend, either. The other thing is the cost involved to run the business. For Wood's business, she provides diapers, and then there's the supplies required to clean up after the messes that are inevitably always being made.

"It's not particularly lucrative. The overhead is just so high. I suspect thats what happened to the others, too."

She started the business because, as a parent herself, she knew firsthand how isolating it can be to be stuck in the home raising children, or hanging out at an uninspiring community centre. She wanted to do something to quench parents' desires to be out and "part of the world." In that regard, she says, she was successful, but now that business has slowed so dramatically, she "can't run a charity."

If there's a problem with the cafe model, there's one woman in the city who knows how to fix it. Emily Pengelly is a co-owner of Sprouts in Leslieville. Her space is a 6,000 square foot indoor playground that lets children run wild, bounce on trampolines, or take one of the many classes on offer. Classes focus mostly on movement and motor skills: think dance, cooking, and construction lessons for little ones.

She says there's lots of interest in franchising from cities across North America. One of the reasons her model works is precisely that it's not a cafe.

She and her business partner, Faye Rauw, used to have demanding careers which, at times, required them to work 18-hour days. As parents, they knew they didn't want to keep up the same pace, but rather, they both wanted to run their own business and have a little more control. Pengelly used to live in Manhattan, and that's where the inspiration for such a large play space came from.

"People who live in apartment buildings don't usually have extra rooms, or playrooms, or backyards. Now that we have children, we thought, 'Why aren't these kinds of things available here in Toronto?' We call it a private club for families with children under seven."

Sprouts includes space where parents can sit down and have coffee, and there are 50 classes offered per week, from pre-school to after-school programming. Summer camps and March break camps are on offer, too, and they're open seven days per week.

"We did look at [the play cafe model]," Pengelly says, "but we realized it wouldn't work. Nobody in their right mind who doesn't have a child is stopping in for a sandwich or a coffee."

She says once kids reach the age of 18 months or so, the cafe model doesn't work so well because kids get rambunctious, and they start running around and "knocking over babies."

Her model works, she says, because people are required to invest in play passes, and so they feel a sense of community, if not ownership, and are compelled to take care of the space. Everyone's first visit is free, but after that, people either have the option of purchasing a six visit play pass (which entitles them to use of the playground area only), or an unlimited 30-day pass for $95. That accommodates two adults and up to three siblings. Single drop-ins are not offered past the first visit.

As for expansion, Pengelly intends to focus on Ontario first. She says there's been interest in Roncey, Markham, and Etobicoke, among other spots. If that goes well, she says she'll look at filling out the rest of the provinces, and into the U.S.

While times look bleak for the play cafe model, on the other hand, Wood says she's not bowing out of the children's services game entirely. Smock may not exist in bricks and mortar form past the end of the month, Wood plans to move her business online, where she will post craft tutorials and healthy, kid-friendly recipes. She'll also sell birthday parties in a box, craft kits and her custom made Wonder Boxes.

Photo of Smock

by Sarah Ratchford via blogTO

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