Toronto's best-known stoner lounge is scrambling for a backup plan after learning that its property has been sold to Jimmy's Coffee.
The property at 191 Baldwin, home of the legendary Hot Box Café, has been up for sale for almost all of the 11 years the pot-friendly business has been there. Café owner Abi Roach knew it would sell one day, but she expected to hear about it from her landlord.
Instead, a phone call from the media alerted Roach to the news that Jimmy’s Coffee—a regular, no-pot-allowed café—has purchased the Hot Box’s building, with the intention of moving in. This would be a sister location to the first Jimmy’s store, on Portland Street.
“It’s a long time to be in the same building paying rent to the same person, and not even get notice,” Roach said. She had operated a pot paraphernalia business out of the space since 2001, but didn’t open the café until 2003. Lately, the Hot Box has been on a month-to-month lease.
Roach said she and her landlord, Bill Giaouris, have had “a great relationship” over the years, until now. An employee at one of Giaouris’ other properties confirmed that he is currently out of the country and cannot be reached.
News of the change at 191 Baldwin spread quickly on social media. Several of Hot Box’s customers and supporters expressed outrage at Jimmy’s Coffee on Twitter.
Phil Morrison, the owner of Jimmy’s Coffee, will take over 191 Baldwin Street on October 1. In a phone interview, he said he and his business have never received so much publicity, and that much of the anger against Jimmy’s is misplaced. “It sounds like things weren’t communicated properly, but it wasn’t my job to communicate that. I don’t need hate mail and my name being slandered,” he said. He also resents the fact that some associate his arrival with Kensington Market’s ongoing gentrification.
“Starbucks has 16,000 stores; this is our second,” he said. “Change is everywhere and change is good.”
Roach, for her part, seems optimistic about the long-term future of the Hot Box Café, which has earned a spot in the the hearts of downtown marijuana users by offering a safe place for patrons to smoke (but not buy, sell, or beg for) pot. She has a second business in the market: a pot paraphernalia store a stone’s throw away at 204 Augusta, with a ten-year lease. However, that location is not licensed as a café, and while Roach goes through the process of obtaining city permits and completing renovations, she will have to lay off many of the café’s 15 employees.
Kensington Market BIA coordinator Yvonne Bambrick is disappointed with the situation. “I don’t like the idea of people losing their jobs,” she said. Bambrick added that the Hot Box brings people to the neighbourhood, and contributes to Kensington’s reputation as an eclectic and exciting neighbourhood.
Morrison says he wants to create a safe, clean place in the Market. Currently, he finds the neighbourhood somewhat lacking as a family destination. “We go there right now and I’m scared to eat in half of the places,” he said. Even so, he hopes he can ease any tension that might accompany his arrival by forming good relationships with existing community members. “The last thing I wanna do is go in there with a bunch of people hating my guts.”
Roach is planning to liquidate inventory at sidewalk sales next month and plow ahead with plans to re-open the cafe as soon as possible. “I know what I have to do now,” she said. “I have to change the whole business model to survive. I’m not going to disappoint my staff and the community.”