Drop in to the community centre lounge and cafe almost any time, any day of the week, and you will be left with no doubt about how significant the space is as a gathering place for residents.
There may be a couple of tables of people playing mahjong or bridge, others on computers or reading papers, and groups of people just chatting — most with a cup of coffee, sandwich or baked treat in front of them. Later in the day, the room fills up with kids — some who have come to the library and wander over to the cafe, others who get off the late bus from high school after their extracurricular activities, where they settle in to wait for their parents to pick them up.
Although the comfortable seating areas, huge windows bringing light into the space and wi-fi provision are all important to the popularity of the space, the cafe is also an enormous draw. And it’s not just because of the great fresh food at pretty reasonable prices, locals say. It’s the loving care of the Erinn Lockhard, the cheerful barista behind the counter who has a warm smile for everyone and goes out of her way to make customers feel welcome and special.
That’s why it’s inconceivable to those who frequent the cafe to think a rent increase for the cafe owners might put them out of business, an unlikely scenario, although two franchise owners have failed before Sweets and Swirls took over; or drive up prices that have been intentionally kept low, which is a real fear to the owners.
On one busy morning last week, Shaw Festival actor Sharry Flett lined up to order coffee and a butter tart — she was meeting actor Guy Bannerman, a regular at the cafe, where the butter tarts are his favourite.
But Lockhard, with a line-up of customers waiting to be served, was out of butter tarts. Knowing it was for Bannerman, she had a thoughtful look around at the baked treats, and offered Flett a piece of pie for him instead. “He’ll like this,” Lockhard assured her.
Flett was able to grab one of the last seats available in the crowded cafe — others were dragging out more chairs to set around tables while they waited for Lockhard to bring their orders over when she had a chance to catch up. Even with her husband James Cadeau on hand to help out, keeping up was a challenge, but the warm reception they gave their customers never faltered.
As it turns out, Lockhard was right about the Chorley pie she had chosen, with a butter tart filling, currants and molasses — Bannerman said it might become his new favourite. It was delivered to his seat in the corner along with his regular Con Panne, a triple shot of espresso and the mug filled to the brim with whipped cream. “He likes his sweets,” laughed Lockhard.
Lockhard, Flett said, “has such a great personal touch, such a sensitivity to all her customers. You can see she is such a kind-hearted person, and high-energy as well. It’s fun to watch her with her family — they’re here all the time, and they’ve become part of the community.”
Last week at the Monday committee-of-the-whole meeting, the cafe’s lease, which is being renewed for the next five years, was discussed. The lease that was negotiated when it opened in 2014 was for $7,200 a year, with a small increase each year after that.
In November, the Town began negotiating a similar lease, with slight increases each year for the next four years, but added property taxes of just under $4,000 per year, as assessed by the Province. This had been omitted from the cafe’s first lease, and would bring the total rent to $931 a month, a 50 per cent increase.
Discussing the need for such a rent hike to cover commercial taxes on the cafe’s small space within the community centre, Bannerman was astounded a 50 per cent increase would even be considered.
“This is such a great place for locals. It’s handy, there’s always lots of parking. It’s all about community, and we have seen so many community institutions that have floundered,” he said.
“The Town better find a compromise that works for them,” added Flett. “All you have to do is imagine this space empty — it should be used to capacity. It encourages dialogue between people who might not be sitting here together but start talking to a larger group. That’s community. There is an emotional investment going on here.”
While councillors expressed their sympathy for the owners’ predicament at last week’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, operations manager Sheldon Randall reminded them the revenue has already been included in the 2019 budget.
“It was an oversight not charging the tenants when the lease was signed and we want to get it cleaned up,” Randall said.
Cadeau talked to councillors about his wife’s commitment to all her customers — to the kids, he said, “she’s affectionately known as the cookie lady.”
He said they’ve worked very hard to serve the community, “and we’re enthusiastic about serving the community for the next five years.”
His wife, he said, has put her heart and soul into running the cafe, and although it was a tough go at the start, the last two years have been a little better.
“I don’t think a national brand could ever do what she’s done.”
Although he knows the Province has assessed the space, he said, he is waiting to hear how that number was derived, and has planned an appeal. He said he was hoping to have more information and an opportunity to negotiate before signing a lease.
With a rent increase of as much as 50 per cent, the cafe would be forced to raise its prices, which they have tried to keep reasonable to accommodate all their customers.
After Cadeau’s presentation, Coun. Gary Burroughs suggested the increase should be phased in over the term of the lease.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita agreed. She would hate to see the tenants unable to run a viable business, she said, suggesting councillors find a way “to ease in this increase in stages to help them.”
Coun. Allan Bisback also suggested a transition for the increase. “I want to support small businesses, and I think this is a great venue.”
Randall told councillors it was their decision, and thery could phase the tax in to give the tenants time to adjust, “although the increase is included in the budget, and Niagara Nursery School is also on notice we’ll be dealing with it with lease negotiations.”
After hearing councillors were suggesting the increase be phased in over three years of the five-year lease, Cadeau said he was grateful for the support they showed for the cafe.
“What they are doing is reasonable. We never said we didn’t want to pay property tax, that was never the issue.”
When the first lease was negotiated, he said, the tax was never discussed, and before signing the current lease, he’d like to have more information from the Province. “A current assessmen would be good.”
But phasing it in will be helpful, he said, giving them a chance to plan for the future, hopefully without raising prices. “Erinn wants to make sure all members of the community can afford to have coffee and a muffin or one of her sandwiches.”
During Monday’s council meeting, Coun. Clare Cameron attempted to offer even further help to the Sweets and Swirls owners, by suggesting the terms of the existing lease remain in place until the owners have had a definitive answer from MPAC on an appeal, but was defeated, and council agreed the property tax will be phased in over three years.