Toronto’s historic Cabbagetown storefronts filled with entrepreneurs embracing tech

cabbagetown

If you’ve ever walked through Cabbagetown in Toronto, you’ve probably noticed the beautiful old Victorian houses, tree-lined streets, and quaint mom-and-pop style shops that look like they’ve been there forever.

Originally founded by Irish immigrants in the 1840s, Cabbagetown is one of Toronto’s oldest communities. Recently, the region has blossomed into one of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods because of its historic charm, local community events, transit access, and numerous small businesses.

You probably wouldn’t guess, though, that an area steeped in history is also full of entrepreneurs leveraging modern tech to build global businesses.

“I learned as I went. I didn’t have a formal business background, so I was all self-taught.”

Cabbagetown is also home to one of the first Business Improvement Associations in the world, which was founded in the 1970s and now operates as a non-profit. The BIA has been helping businesses since its inception, most recently engaging with Digital Main Street, a City of Toronto initiative, to help entrepreneurs leverage technology to grow their business.

While Cabbagetown sits outside of Toronto’s noted tech neighbourhoods, local entrepreneurs are not shy about how they’ve struggled with — and come to embrace — technology’s ability to help their business grow. In partnership with Digital Main Street, BetaKit is profiling these Toronto communities and local entrepreneurs that are now leveraging tech to grow.

The entrepreneur’s life

Whether they started their business 30 or three years ago, entrepreneurs in Cabbagetown share a personal journey familiar to any Canadian tech founder.

“I learned as I went,” explained Patty Junior, founder and owner of Epicure Bakeshop and Deli. “I didn’t have a formal business background, so I was all self-taught and I learned by asking my customers what they wanted and delivering on whatever I could.”

A crucial part of business learning in the 21st century involves implementing and adapting to technology, and that’s where the BIA comes in.

digital main street

Patty Junior, founder of Epicure

“Digital Main Street approached us as a partner because the BIA had already done a bit in the digital world,” said Stephen-Thomas Maciejowski, Executive Director of the BIA of Cabbagetown. “They liked that Cabbagetown was a neighbourhood with a little bit of everything.”

Maciejowski explained that a particular point of focus for the entrepreneurs in Cabbagetown is expanding their presence online.

“If you don’t exist online or in the virtual world, people are not going to know you or see your business,” he said.

“The BIA, and now with our DMS partnership, want to help Cabbagetown entrepreneurs show who they are, what they offer, and showcase how they contribute to the community. I always tell folks to talk about themselves and their team, telling the story about the people behind their businesses.”

The power of social

When one thinks about businesses “leveraging tech,” images are often conjured of machine learning, AI, and powerful cloud platforms. However, for many businesses, the simplest changes can sometimes have the largest impact.

“I didn’t know how to use social media at first, so even though I had social accounts I was not able to make that big an impact,” explained Alex Zamavoa, founder of Mi Casa Furniture Shop. “Digital Main Street helped me get my accounts set up properly, and I found followers and fans I never knew I had.”

“If it wasn’t for the Cabbagetown community, I wouldn’t be here, so I give back and help out wherever I can.”

Junior from Epicure shared similar struggles. Something as ubiquitous as social media may not seem like a point of impact, but both Zamavoa and Junior used social media to connect with new clients and build feedback loops with their current customers, helping their businesses act on the insights they received. It’s such a huge need for small businesses, that startups like Toronto-based Vantage have found great traction providing that data and insights.

“Through social media analytics, I have numbers for my business that help me track our audience size, who follows us, and how they are interacting with the business online. My whole family helps out with social media now,” Junior said.

A brick-and-mortar business may be local, but with bricks-and-clicks, Maciejowski wants to help Cabbagetown businesses build national and even global followings.

“If you don’t take advantage of technology in every way you can for a brick-and-mortar business, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity.”

Building community

One common thread amongst Cabbagetown entrepreneurs that might resonate with tech founders working downtown is the power of community and the necessity of giving back, no matter how big or small your budget.

“Giving back is a crucial part of what we do,” said Maciejowski. “We tell all entrepreneurs to focus on the human element of their business, so people who live and visit Cabbagetown can get to know them as people, not just business names.”

For the Cabbagetown business owners themselves, this couldn’t be more true.

“Social media has helped me see who follows us so we can let them know about events, and then attending community events and giving back is how I get to put a face to the name and talk to my local customers, which is amazing,” said Junior.

“If it wasn’t for the Cabbagetown community, I wouldn’t be here, so I give back and help out wherever I can.”

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios or send an email to stefan.palios@gmail.com.