But Kanto is conveniently located a few meters from the southeast corner, just outside of the Toronto Public Library, on what should be city land. It is one of the retrofitted shipping containers permanently parked on the property and rented out for $300-325 a month to budding entrepreneurs. Nine of the 12 start-up businesses in this funky marketplace sell food, and Kanto is one of them.
Collectively known as Market 707 after its street address, all the containers belong to the social enterprise project of Scadding Court Community Centre. SCCC bought and retrofitted the containers and then rented them out to people who wanted to start their own businesses but didn’t have much capital.
There is a wide variety of food offerings in this marketplace, mostly easy-to-handle snacks that one can eat on the sidewalk standing up or walking. They can also be packed in styrofoam containers for take-out. There are dimsums, rotis, merguez sausage, crepes, curry and artisan cheese.
Kanto specializes in Philippine cuisine. Diona Joyce, more known in the food business as Tita Flips, is the owner. She is also the Queen of Pinoy street food. Tita Flips participated in street festivals in the city when she was just starting out. At the TNT Waterfront Night Market where the smell of stinky tofu filled the night air, Tita Flips contributed more bizarre food such as BBQ IUD (innards), kwek-kwek (fried quail eggs) and balut (duck embryo). Of course, her marketing sense also old her to offer safer choices such as lumpiang shanghai (savory eggroll), skewered barbecue and turon (sweet banana eggroll), which sold quicker.
It was, however, at the Annual Toronto Underground Market where she became known to the mainstream market. The non-Asian crowd enjoyed her exotic offerings. She “invented” the Pinoy version of the Quebecois poutine (french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy) with sisig (sizzling chopped pork head) and mayonnaise, sriracha and green onions as topping. It became her main attraction in her next events, especially at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Friday Nights where the sisig fries went well with the beer.
Kanto’s menu is longer though: tapsilog (tapa [beef jerky] and egg on rice); tosilog (tocino [cured pork] and egg on rice) dinuguan (pork blood stew), balut, cassava cake. She has a big market at the hospital across the street -- workers come for lunch and merienda (snack); sometimes to bring home, as these health workers work long shifts and may not have time to cook.
The entrepreneurs at Market 707 don’t have other workers to help them so they rely on each other. When Tita Flips needs change, she can run from stall to stall to ask the other vendors to break her $20. There is a strong sense of community. In this, the Scadding Court Community Centre has reached its community development objective. The supportive neighborhood no longer shows signs of blight; there are always people in the well-lighted space so it feels safer for the residents to walk this way; plus the stalls provide some needed services like a bike repair shop, a clothes store and others, not just food.
Tita Flips and some of her friends from the underground market were among the first to apply in November 2011. She was initially put on the waiting list. Finally in January, someone backed out and she was offered one of the stalls. She accepted it and formed Kanto as a subsidiary of her catering company Tita Flips. It took a couple of months to get the city license and outfit her kitchen according to city bylaws and strict public health guidelines; but it was good timing when she opened. Winter was almost over, days were getting warmer and there were many sunny days. People began to go out on the streets. The marketplace was new and attracted the curious. Tita Flips relied on social media to get the word got out to her contacts. They came and then more came as word traveled by mouth and through the internet.
When summer came, Tita Flips began selling halo-halo and ice candy. Her halo-halo is in a take-out plastic tub, but it looks special with the ube (purple yam) rosettes, slab of leche flan and barquillos (wafer stick) stirrer.
While other stall owners took a break from the sweltering heat, Tita Flips continued to fry rice in garlic to fill lunch orders from the nearby hospital’s staff. They had managed to get Tita Flip’s cell phone number and now just phoned in their orders for pick-up during their lunch break. As late as 2 p.m., workers from nearby offices, like Kapisanan Community Arts Centre in Kensington, also came for lunch.
Street customers paused and wavered, should I wait or should I leave? Tita Flips was busy and the halo-halo was fussy. There was no space in the container for two cooks, so orders were slow. Eventually the passersby left.
The hospital workers are her regular clientele. The hospital staff will continue to be there but even they may hesitate to go outside to pick up their orders. Businesses outside of protected malls suffer when the weather is bad, that’s why Market 707 is considering a delivery system using retrofitted bicycles as another social enterprise.
But Tita Flips does not run out of ideas to expand her market and grow her business.
The next summer, she began her Ihaw-Ihaw (grilling) every Wednesday night. For this she rented the community centre’s kitchen with permission to grill outside. That’s weather permitting too.
The same year, she started accepting orders for Christmas ham, chicken relleno, leche flan and ube as early as fall. She was able to get orders from far and wide. To accommodate them, she agreed to stay until the afternoon of the 24th so people could pick up their orders. The stalls are individually metered for electricity, gas and water and so they can close or open as they wish, an advantage over the mall kiosks.
Her newest idea is the Kamayan Experience. You can order the kamayan menu and she can set up the utensil-free feast in your own home or office.
It’s been four years since Kanto opened. It has become one of the stable businesses in the marketplace. After a round of pop-up operations and special events that served as incubators, Tita Flips was ready to settle into a permanent location. Kanto and her catering business complemented each other and became a mini-conglomerate. She now has a loyal and growing clientele. She has been featured in magazines, newspapers and television and has put Filipino cuisine in the forefront of Toronto’s food offerings. Tita Flips is happy where she is and with staying small.
More on Kanto:
1) Kanto's website: Kanto.ca
2) "Hello, It's Definitely Not Thai Food's Ugly Sister" By Marites N. Sison
3) "The Happy Home Cook: Kanto by Tita Flips' Kwek-Kwek and Taho" By Diona Joyce
Maripi Leynes is a dual citizen of Canada and the Philippines and currently resides in Toronto, a city that she loves. She spent her first 100 days as a retiree in the Philippines (the honeymoon stage) and is yet to decide on the next thousand days.
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