Canada Oct. 9, 2017

Restaurant for the poor marks 30 years of service

By Meggie Hoegler

Peter Franke is a regular patron of St. Francis Table. (Photo by Meggie Hoegler)

TORONTO (CCN)—Sandwiched between a swanky taqueria and a slough of trendy bars selling $12 cocktails is St. Francis Table – a restaurant for the poor that has been serving $1 meals for 30 years.

The Parkdale institution has offered its patrons nutritious meals and full restaurant service six days a week since 1987. To honour the work of the Franciscan friars and their impact on the community, the laneway behind the restaurant is being renamed St. Francis’ Lane.

Brother John Frampton, animator of St. Francis Table, put in a request for the name change to the City of Toronto and it was approved almost instantly. “We are expecting the sign to be installed any day now,” said Brother Frampton.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Lionel Alleluia, the chaplaincy lead and teacher with Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School. “They have been a pillar in this community for people who need support. I think it’s only fair that they are recognized for all of their hard work.”

On this morning, Alleluia is volunteering with a group of students from Henry Carr. His students wear white aprons and greet the patrons with a friendly smile. They serve plates filled with perogies, baked beans, french fries, and vegetables. He has been bringing students to the restaurant to volunteer for five years as part of a chaplaincy initiative.

“It plants the seed of giving back,” said Alleluia. “When these kids come here, their eyes are opened and their horizons are broadened. We get them thinking about the world outside of themselves.”

This is Sonny Doria’s fourth time volunteering at St. Francis Table. The Henry Carr student says the good feeling he gets after helping people is what keeps bringing him back.

“I really enjoy serving and getting to know all the people who come in,” said Doria, 16. “They say thank you and call me a good kid. That’s why I’m doing this.”

When the restaurant first opened, Parkdale was home to a significant population living below the poverty line. Patients from the nearby Queen St. and Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospitals were released to integrate into the community, giving rise to a population struggling with untrusting mental illness.

The face of Parkdale is changing. Today, it is a mixture of old and new, poverty and luxury dwelling side by side. There are condos a block away from government housing projects. The homeless share the sidewalk with entrepreneurs who live in loft-style condos.

Despite their differences, the restaurant and the Franciscan friars have a great relationship with their trendy neighbours. “Our neighbours have been nothing but supportive,” said Brother Frampton. “Doomie’s (a vegan restaurant across the street) brings us leftover food they don’t use. The same butchers and convenience stores have been donating to us for years.”

The restaurant relies entirely on donations, both private and from corporations such as Loblaws and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Frampton says the patrons of St. Francis Table come from all walks of life: those battling addiction, mental illnesses, working poor, unemployed, single parents, elderly, and children. Frampton estimates the restaurant serves about 40,000 meals a year.

The gentrification of the neighbourhood has caused rent to skyrocket, leaving many unable to afford basic necessities like food and forcing others to move away.

“When you pay $725 a month in rent, that doesn’t leave you much to spend on food,” said Peter Franke, a regular patron at St. Francis Table. Franke knows Brother Frampton and settles into his usual table with a smile. “They know me here; I feel comfortable. And the price is right. I couldn’t make a sandwich at home for a dollar.”

St. Francis Table is not so different from its neighbouring restaurants. Patrons sit at a table, order off a menu, and are served by a staff member. The price of a loonie helps make a point.
“Toronto didn’t need another soup kitchen,” said Brother Frampton. “We wanted to provide a service with more dignity.”

As for the next 30 years at St. Francis Table, Brother Frampton envisions a future where food ministries are no longer needed.

“During election time, politicians will knock on this door and say ‘Vote for me! Here’s what I’ll do.’ They always focus on health care or roads or public transportation. I will ask them what they plan on doing for the people we serve here. How are they planning to end hunger in the city?”

St. Francis Table will celebrate its anniversary on Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Although they will not be serving food, the friars encourage everyone to come and learn more about St. Francis Table.

“We are not celebrating the need for food,” said Frampton. “We are celebrating 30 years of volunteers and helping our community.”