How COVID-19 turned this Mexican restaurant into a food bank

Restaurateur Yasmen De Leon hadn’t expected to be running a food bank out of her business. But, until recently, no one had really imagined life under COVID-19.

Comal y Canela is an exceptional little restaurant. It always does so much with what it’s got. So I wasn’t surprised to see that it’s being so wonderful right now.

“If we don’t pitch in and help our neighbours out — if everyone waits around for somebody else to do it — who’s going to get help then?” De Leon says.

I found out about the best Mexican restaurant in Toronto by accident. A couple of years ago, a restaurant critic friend, maybe after a few drinks, mistakenly emailed me a rough draft of a glowing review. I rushed out to try it and fell in love. Everything on the menu is phenomenal and made to demanding from-scratch standards. That means soaking and cooking corn in slaked lime before grinding it to produce a masa dough. The quesadillas made with it, stuffed with mozzarella, panela, and queso fresco cheeses, are ephemeral works of art.

There is no liquor licence. The room has barely 10 seats. On winter nights, when customers walk in for takeout orders, the temperature drops 10 degrees. And it’s not even near me. Comal is at Lawrence Avenue West and Jane Street, 45-minute drive from my home, and I don’t own a car. Despite all that, I’ve become a regular. Last year, my wife and I ate our anniversary dinner there.

In early March, when social distancing was something people were just starting to google, De Leon saw the writing on the wall for restaurants and began reducing costs.

“To everyone, I was saying, ‘It’s going to be okay,’” remembers De Leon. “But, already, I was cutting down purchasing, planning to limit dishes.”

Like many restaurateurs, she switched to takeout and delivery. Though this generates only 25 per cent of her usual sales, she sees it as a necessary action to sustain the relationship with her clientele.

“If you’re not able to provide your customers with what they’re looking for,” she says, “they’ll forget you.”

Meanwhile, regular costs — rent, maintenance, garbage disposal, etc. — continue to add up. So she’s cut out a lot of the menu — pozole, beef birria, cochinita pibil, suadero — to focus on the most popular items: carnitas, goat birria, quesadillas, sopes, burritos, and tortas.

Comal usually opens at 6 a.m. to serve breakfast for people who work in nearby factories or at the airport. But, as she began adapting to the new service model, De Leon started hearing about increased food insecurity in her community.

“People are losing their jobs,” she says. “Some have enough to pay the rent but not to buy groceries. There are more people in need now and less places to go. Not just in the Latin American community. It’s everyone.”

She heard stories about people without status unable to access food banks, an international student who lacked financial support, and a landlord who, realizing that his undocumented tenants were losing their jobs, called Canada Border Services Agency on them.

“I was just shocked. I knew how it was when I needed a foodbank when I was a child,” she says. “So I decided to buy what I could.”

De Leon and her family left Mexico when she was five. They lived in the United States for four years before moving to Canada, where they spent six years waiting for refugee status.

“We went to a food bank,” she says. “And they couldn’t help us, because we didn’t have Canadian ID.”

The family went back to Mexico, then headed to Guatemala, where her father was murdered. Her mother packed her five children into the car and drove to Canada.

“My mother was a single mom of five kids,” De Leon says. “Many times, we had to go to the food bank. And, yet, she never denied anyone a plate of food. All my friends ate at our house. I remember, one time, we made peanut butter, pita, and Cheerio sandwiches. Because that’s all we had. If we see our neighbours like our children, then we would be much better as a society and a community.”

Seeing a need in her community, De Leon began buying food in bulk — beans, rice, oatmeal, salt, sugar, eggs, apples, oranges, potatoes, carrots, onions — and dividing it into parcels.

“Someone has to feed them,” she says.

Last week, she handed out 100 food packages. She’s been paying out of her own pocket, though she has received a few donations.

“People are helping out. So I can do it a little longer than I expected,” she says. “But making 100 grocery bags is expensive, and there’s only so much I can do. I will do it for as long as I can. But my pocket is not bottomless.”

The hardest part, says de Leon, is not being able to hug people: “It’s very difficult to explain to people that it’s not being disrespectful or rude, that this is the way we’re showing that we care. Keeping our distance — not hugging you, not kissing you — is how we’re taking care of you and ourselves.”

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