Dear Readers, one of my first treats when I arrive in Toronto is to follow the underground PATH system from our hotel to Pusateri’s at Saks Fifth Avenue, which used to be the food hall to end all food halls. Fancy a salad, made up before your very eyes? Or Icelandic Skyr yoghurt with raspberries and melted chocolate? Or fresh bread, straight from the oven? Admittedly, you needed deep pockets to shop regularly at Pusateri’s, but as an occasional treat, you couldn’t beat it.
Today, the only outlets open in the whole food hall were one selling pizza (admittedly delicious), and one selling the most ornate eclairs you’ve ever seen. Everything else was silent and fenced off. Black boxes with the word ‘Pusateri’s’ were on all the shelves instead of artisanal pasta and fancy chocolate. An occasional member of staff drifted past to clear up the detritus from someone’s pizza meal. Before the pandemic, you could queue for twenty minutes for your salad. Today, there is no salad at all.
Pusateri’s didn’t cover itself in glory early in the pandemic, when it was charging $30 for a tin of hand wipes, and was called out for price-gouging by the Ontario premier Doug Ford. But I suspect that the problem with Pusateri’s is much more to do with the way that many workers have voted to stay at home rather than coming back into the office. And of course, this is what’s happened all over the world. People are working from home (me included) because it feels safer, less stressful and more efficient, but the sandwich shops, the shoe repairers, the greeting card shops and the purveyors of office clothing are all going to the dogs. It’s been a massive shake up of our urban ecology, and I suspect that, much as Jacob Rees-Mogg might leave little passive-aggressive notes on the desks of civil servants who aren’t in the office, working from home, at least for some of the time, is here to stay.
Of course, this is a massive opportunity for local shops and businesses. People who work from home still need a break, and maybe they will pop out to a local newsagent for a magazine, go to the neighbourhood coffee shop and get their groceries from the place around the corner. What a good thing that could be! In many communities there was a coming-together during the pandemic, and there’s plenty of scope for that to continue. Many of us fail to see the appeal of getting up at 5.30 in the morning to be in the office for 7.30 so that they can leave by 4.30 and miss the worst of the rush hour, especially when compared with the 30 second commute from the bedroom to the office that many of us currently have.
I wonder what happened to all the staff who used to work here, chopping and packaging, taking cash, adding toppings to yoghurt and dressings to salad? There are other Pusateri’s outlets in the city, so I’d like to think that some people have moved to them, but nonetheless I wonder about the bulk of the employees. Canada had a pretty generous furlough scheme, but even so, jobs must have been lost here. It might be that the food hall will be reopened gradually, but I wonder if it will ever have as much custom as it did before the pandemic.
I have only been in Toronto for a couple of hours, so no doubt there are lots of other changes, some for the good, some not. But my initial feeling is that the centre of the city has been somehow hollowed out by the pandemic and its aftermath. I wonder if I will still feel the same at the end of the holiday? Let’s see.