Seven chefs whose pandemic-prompted food products have become huge hits in Toronto

“Pivot” isn’t the mot du jour, it’s the mot du 2020. The hospitality industry — turned on its head by COVID-19 — had to quickly adapt to a dine-in-free reality. With rent and staff to pay, restaurateurs are getting creative when it comes to making ends meet. Many are now launching new products they never fathomed. Here are seven Toronto restaurants that launched pandemic-prompted retail products.

PIZZERIA DU’S VEGAN GELATO

The Product: Mid-lockdown, Roger Yang (Avelo, Awai) celebrated the very unceremonious launch of his new plant-based spot, Pizzeria Du. The restaurant has no patio, which means Pizzeria Du is fettered to takeout. To make use of the large Queen West–facing front window, Yang has decided to get into the gelato game. The coconut-oat milk base makes for an ultra-creamy icy treat. Flavours range from classic (chocolate, strawberry) to quirky (black garlic, pistachio miso).

Post-COVID longevity: “There’s definitely a market for a richer, solid ice cream replacement — most of the plant-based grocery store gelatos taste like sorbet. When we gain enough traction, we will definitely be working on getting into grocery stores. Because it’s made with multiple plant-based milks, we’re planning to name it M!LK!,” says Yang.

Cost: $12 a pint, $7 a half pint.

LIBRETTO’S FROZEN PIE

The Product: Pizzeria Libretto’s crispy, floppy wood-fired Margherita and pepperoni pizzas are now available frozen. The Neapolitan-style pies are par baked for 90 seconds until the crust blisters and chars, but they’re still just slightly underdone. They’re then flash frozen and shrink-wrapped for freshness. After a five-minute stint in the oven, dinner is served.

Post-COVID longevity: The pizzas are already available at Pusateri’s, Fresh & Wild, Lady York Foods, Fresh Avenue, Roast Fine Foods and Good Rebel. “It’s been so amazing to learn and embrace this new world of frozen products. We will absolutely continue this as a spinoff of the Libretto brand,” says Libretto founder Max Rimaldi.

Cost: Starting at $11.

HONG SHING’S FROZEN DIM SUM

The Product: When Colin Li took over his family’s 23-year-old Chinese restaurant, he wanted to modernize the business. One of Li’s recent innovations was to add frozen dumplings (har gow and siu mai) and bamboo steamer baskets to the menu.

Post-COVID longevity: “We’re definitely going to keep working on a line of products that will also include sauces,” says Li.

Cost: $20–$25 for a 20-piece bag of dumplings; $12 for a 6-inch steamer basket.

JEFF KANG’S KIMCHI

The Product: When the pandemic hit, Jeff Kang hit snooze on his high-end spots Canis and Après Wine Bar and launched a Korean fried chicken pop-up. Although people loved the chicken tenders, they were absolutely obsessed with the kimchi sides. Kang had started by fermenting 16 heads of cabbage, thinking that would last for at least a month — if not two — but he sold out in 48 hours. His kimchi — which comes in three permutations: cucumber, radish and nappa cabbage —  is sweetened by apples and pears and is lacto-fermented for a week until it reaches tangy perfection.

Post-COVID longevity: “I’m shutting down Kang Bang Fried Chicken and launching a Japanese natural wine bar, but we’re going to keep selling the kimchi and also add Japanese pickles. I haven’t thought that far into the future about it, but if there was an opportunity to get them into a grocery store, I’d love that,” says Kang.

Cost: $7 for a 500 ml jar.

BAR KOUKLA’S BOTTLED AEGEAN COCKTAILS

The Product: Mixologist Scott Langley has been busy bottling his Hellenic-inspired cocktails for home consumption. The Tzatziki — a clever nod to the Greek dip modelled on a French 75 — is a bestseller. The drink starts with cold-pressed cucumber juice and mint juice that’s mixed with lactic acid (for that sweet, silky milk-like mouth feel sans dairy) and Tanqueray gin. The concoction is then carbonated, bottled and labelled by hand.

Post-COVID longevity: “We’ve been brainstorming about how this is going to live past 2020. Right now, we are working on professional labels and we’re hoping to one day get into the LCBO,” says Bar Koukla owner Thanos Tripi.

Cost: $40, serves four.

LOVE CHIX’S FROZEN BUTTER CHICKEN POT PIE

The Product: This Junction Triangle spot morphed into a bodega in March, selling groceries alongside a curtailed takeout menu. One of their most popular oven-ready meals has been Mumbai-born chef Punit Sehgal’s butter chicken pot pie. The creamy fenugreek-redolent sauce is cooked down for three hours before it’s poured into a butter puff pastry shell and frozen.

Post-COVID longevity: “We’re going to keep the groceries, like the pie, that are moving well for us. We’re adapting, but it’s about the community and what they want,” says owner Paul Marshall.

Cost: $38, feeds six.

BUCA’S RED WINE VINEGAR

The Product: When chef Rob Gentile’s family came over from Italy 64 years ago, they made their first batch of Canadian red wine vinegar using local grapes. They’d make wine every year, and anything that wasn’t good enough for sipping was turned into vinegar. For the past six decades they’ve been keeping this vinegar culture alive. Now, the same tangy condiment used to dress Buca’s fantastic salads is available for sale by the bottle.

Post-COVID longevity: “We’ve wanted to expand into retail for a while, and there are definitely some items, like my family’s red wine vinegar, that we would love to further develop into a broader Cucina Buca line,” says Gentile.

Cost: $10

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