Eating & Drinking

Sourdough starter, natural wine, and staff support — Catching up with the Corner Peach crew

Ever since the doors of Corner Peach opened at the corner of Booth and Somerset, the restaurant has been a much-loved destination for the residents of Little Italy, Chinatown, and the rest of Centretown. When Covid hit they dutifully closed those doors, but owners Caroline Murphy and Emma Campbell have been slowly launching a take-away operation built around their popular sourdough. And also wine — “young, fresh, natural, funky” wines that you can’t find at the LCBO.  

Find the Corner Peach pantry — stocked with bread, sourdough starter, olives, wine, beer, and other comforting treats, here.

We caught up with talk to chef/owner Caroline Murphy and GM/owner Emma Campbell to talk about their situation, and what Covid is doing to the restaurant industry as a whole.

What factors did you consider when deciding to launch a take-out menu?
The first thing we thought about was the safety of our staff. There was no way we could do a regular Corner Peach takeout menu without our staff, and it seemed counterintuitive to ask them to keep putting themselves at risk by coming to work. We were closed for a full 3 weeks, in total quarantine, before we even considered re-opening. Even then it was hard to decide what to do. The kind of food we make is not essential in any way. It’s a premium, a treat!

Then we heard there was a shortage of instant yeast in the city and — since we were closed, not baking bread —  we were developing an excess of our sourdough starter. So we split the excess into a few containers and put it out on our front window ledge for our neighbours. By the second day, there was literally a line around the block, and we started to feel uncomfortable. There were about a hundred people gathering outside our restaurant. when the whole point of the stay at home order was to not gather! We decided that there had to be a better, more organized, way for people to purchase our starter. But the reality was that without the sales of alcohol it wouldn’t have been financially worth it to start back up. So when the province announced that we were able to sell beer and wine to-go, it all fell into place.

Photos by Andrea Anne

It was kind of a scary thing to be sitting on thousands of dollars of wine inventory, so we stripped the food menu down to what two people could make in a day and decided to go for it. We asked ourselves, “if we were sitting at home all day what would we want to eat and drink?” Bread and wine, of course! We decided then that any profits made would go into a fund for our staff. We’re lucky to be in Canada right now and to have the support of our government, but those first two weeks when everyone’s back at work (and not receiving CERB/EI) could be pretty tight for some people. This fund will hopefully give a little buffer/bonus to our staff when they come back and get them through to their first post-Covid paycheck.

What challenges did you face? What drove you to continue?
Once we figured out what we wanted to, and what we could do, the major challenge was administrative logistics. We launched our menu on Instagram and the response was very overwhelming. That first day Emma and I were at the restaurant all day and into the night and it felt like we had barely put a dent in the number of unread emails in our inbox. Our system felt very inefficient; the hardest part was organizing and scheduling the pick-ups.

Another challenge was that we are in no way a bakery. We don’t even have a convection oven! We can make 14 loaves and 16 baguettes per day, max. (We usually do eight loaves per day while the restaurant is in full swing.) 

What drove us to continue? Our staff! Knowing that we will be able to provide them with a small financial boost when they come back to work makes it worthwhile. It’s hard to go from working 6-7 days a week to a complete stop, so just being back at work was a good motivator too.

What inspired the menu? What are the most popular items so far?
The huge line-up for sourdough starter kicked everything off, so we knew we would have to have that on the menu. So we made a complete sourdough bread kit; flour (enough for two loaves, plus extra to feed your starter), salt, starter, and detailed instructions. We also made a video on our Instagram account of the whole process so that people could follow along. Bread and those kits remain the most popular items.

Three views of at-home sourdough making. Photos by Andrea Anne

We’ve also been selling a lot of beer and wine. The restaurant is so small and we don’t have space for a big wine cellar. Emma concentrates our list on young, fresh, natural, funky wines. Again, it’s just stuff we want to drink — beer and wines that we’re excited about. Most of our list isn’t available at the LCBO, so it gives our customers a chance to stock up on something different. 

The Corner Peach online wine shop includes bottles from Hinterland, Southbrook, and Cueva — and most are not available at the LCBO

How do you think the current closures will affect the local restaurant industry in the long term?
This is a tough question and a big question. This crisis really shone a light on some big pre-existing problems within the restaurant industry. If big, established restaurants are going under, even with government help, it really shows just how ruthless this business can be. The margins are razor-thin, the wages are low, the hours are long, and the lifestyle can be rough. Kitchens have a bad reputation for being hostile work environments. These issues were a huge reason why we opened Corner Peach in the first place: we wanted to do things differently and create a better work environment for our staff, and for ourselves. Hopefully, this break will help everyone put things into perspective and some positive changes will come from it. There will have to be a shift and restaurants will have to rethink how they do business. We keep thinking of this quote from Gabrielle Hamilton’s NYT Magazine article:

“The concerns before coronavirus are still universal:
The restaurant as we know it is no longer viable on its own.
You can’t have tipped employees making $45 an hour while line cooks make $15.
You can’t buy a $3 can of cheap beer at a dive bar in the East Village if the “dive bar” is actually paying $18,000 a month in rent, $30,000 a month in payroll; it would have to cost $10.
I can’t keep hosing down the sauté corner myself just to have enough money to repair the ripped awning.”