Coastal Cafe blames HRM planning for its closure | Shoptalk | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Coastal Cafe owner Mark Giffin says two years of pandemic measures and the HRM's plans to acquire the property he rents have left his business drained and out of options.

Coastal Cafe blames HRM planning for its closure

The cafe's owner feels the HRM pays little heed to small businesses. The HRM, meanwhile, has plans for a rapid bus corridor on Robie Street.

Mark Giffin is not looking for a pity parade. Even as the owner and chef behind The Coastal Cafe prepares for his last service in just a few weeks—the building he’s fried thousands of eggs and poured several more thousands of coffees in over 16 years soon to be sold to the HRM to pave the way for an expanded bus corridor—he’s not interested in soliciting anyone’s sympathy.

“I’m just some schmo who cooks,” he tells The Coast, sitting at a table after another day in the kitchen. “But people really love the food.”

Earlier this week, Giffin announced on his popular north end brunch haunt’s Facebook page that his business would be serving its final customers on May 28, 2023. His landlord, Sackville-based Murex Realty, let him know in December that Halifax would be “expropriating” the Robie Street property halfway between May and Almon Streets. After more than two years of financial hardship prompted by COVID-19 pandemic measures, and the city’s removal of street parking for a dedicated bus lane in 2020, he says it’s a bridge too far for his small business. There’s no money left in the till.

“I’m walking out of here after 16 years, financially, with nothing but crushing debt,” he tells The Coast.

In a Facebook post, Giffin lamented that the city was giving him “the unceremonious boot,” leading him into possible bankruptcy, “all because I committed the unforgivable sin of having a small business in Halifax.” Giffin doesn’t own the building he runs the cafe out of at 2731 Robie Street. His lease ends in June, and he’s been told he needs to leave by August. And because the building is changing into the HRM’s hands, he says, there’s no opportunity for him to sell the business on to another buyer. Rents have soared in the years since Giffin took over tenancy on Robie Street. He could look elsewhere in Halifax, he says, but he’d be paying “triple” what he is now—and his business’s margins wouldn’t work.

“It’s getting harder and harder right now to run a restaurant,” he says. “Rents are through the roof. Food prices are astronomical… With an industry where five percent profit is ‘woohoo,’ I don’t know how anyone’s making it.”

Halifax’s small businesses feeling weight of inflation

Giffin is far from the only small business owner facing difficult economic circumstances. Last month, the owner of longtime cannabis accessory store MaryJanes Smoke Shop announced that his business was done after 28 years.

“We’re not a large company; we’re basically just a mom and pop shop,” owner Scott Doucette told The Coast. “Everything went online during COVID—that’s when this pretty much all started. A lot of sales are done online. We invested into online sales, but the price of shipping items [costs our customers] more than, say, Amazon. They can do way better deals.”

click to enlarge Coastal Cafe blames HRM planning for its closure
Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
The MaryJanes Smoke Shop on Grafton Street is now closed. Owner Scott Doucette says COVID-19, a saturated market, and government restrictions spelled the end for the business's 28-year run.

In December, The Tare Shop closed its Halifax branch after going public with its financial difficulties. That same month, north end clothing designers Ana + Zac closed their Agricola Street shop and moved to Lunenburg. Two months earlier, Vandal Doughnuts closed up shop on Gottingen Street.

Giffin says that The Coastal Cafe was able to survive the pandemic thanks to government supports like the Canada Emergency Business Account, but “once those dried up… the way I’ve done it is by exhausting my life savings.” Now, he’s looking at declaring bankruptcy.

“I’ve been in very dark places in my mind’s eye, catastrophizing, just not knowing what’s going to happen,” he says. He says he’s yet to hear from the HRM—despite the fact that the city is taking over his block.

“They just see property,” he says. “They don’t think, ‘it’s people’s lives.’”

A matter of expropriation

Giffin is unequivocal about his cafe’s expropriation. The HRM is less so: In an emailed response to The Coast, city councillor Lindell Smith—whose district includes the block where Coastal Cafe has stood for 16 years—claims that the HRM has not, in fact, expropriated the land the Coastal Cafe sits on, but rather that negotiations “are still ongoing, along with other landowners” along the Robie Street corridor. The HRM hasn’t specified how many properties it’s looking to buy from landowners along Robie Street—but per the region’s Robie Street Transportation Reserve, the likeliest candidates include those on the north end of Robie, from the former Bloomfield Centre to Willow Street.

The HRM's plan calls for widening Robie Street to accommodate bus lanes in both directions.
Halifax Regional Municipality

Halifax has plans for an eventual Bus Rapid Transit line along Robie, running from Saint Mary’s University to Clayton Park’s Lacewood Terminal. It anticipates widening sections of the road to make room for designated bus lanes.

Which brings us back to expropriation: Per Nova Scotia’s aptly-named Expropriation Act, Halifax Regional Municipality has the authority to seize land from property owners if it’s for public projects. That authority requires that Halifax offers fair compensation to any affected owners. Councillor Smith says the HRM could still use these statutory powers, depending on how discussions fare, but calls a property seizure “always the very last resort.” So, whether the HRM is forcing Robie Street property owners to sell is, in some respects, a matter of semantics: Owners could freely reject a deal now, only to be made to accept a deal later.

“It shocks me, the fact that they’re not calling it expropriation,” Giffin argues. “They know what they’re doing.”

The Coast reached out to Murex Realty to clarify whether it was accepting an offer for the Coastal Cafe’s property or being made to sell, but did not receive a reply before publication.

Bus lanes and Robie Street

Halifax’s plans for Robie Street are not a new phenomenon—nor is the opposition those plans have drawn from some corners. Two years ago, HRM council set forth its plans for a “transportation reserve” on Robie Street, anticipating a need for eventual bus lanes forming a north-south rapid transit corridor. In the face of a rapidly expanding population and a global climate emergency fuelled, in part, by our continued reliance on oil and gas, council has—if at times, unsuccessfully—set its sights on promoting “more compact and walkable communities” across Halifax. Council sees an eventual rapid transit network—complete with four new bus lines and three new ferry routes—as part of that.

The HRM anticipates spending between $297 to $342 million to build out its rapid transit network over eight years. The proposed bus and ferry lines would extend from Halifax to Bedford, Dartmouth Crossing, Portland Hills and Spryfield. Robie Street would form a significant spine of the network—the HRM already added its first phase of bus lanes to Robie in 2020.

click to enlarge Coastal Cafe blames HRM planning for its closure
Halifax Regional Municipality
The HRM's proposed rapid transit corridor includes four main bus routes and three new ferry stops.

And while Halifax deserves praise for its efforts to boost its transit ridership, the implementation of those efforts hasn’t gone off without incident. Last December, some residents on Robie Street took issue with Halifax’s plans to widen the street to accommodate more bus lanes. Peggy Cameron, who lives on Robie, told Global News that neither she nor her neighbours were consulted about the city’s plans.

“It means affordable housing, housing co-ops, four First Nation buildings, two shelters, one shelter for young girls, one shelter for youth,” she said. “All of those are going to be impacted because of the plan to widen Robie Street.”

What’s next for Coastal Cafe?

Giffin hasn’t quite decided what will come at the end of May, when he closes the doors of The Coastal Cafe for good.

“I’m almost thinking of running for council,” he jokes.

He’s hopeful that he’ll find a partner of some kind to keep the brunch spot’s signature dish, the Durty Burd chicken sandwich, alive.

“I have a small menu now by necessity,” he says. “But back in the day, when I had about 14 items, about half the revenue would be Durty Burds.”

Some have suggested a food truck. He’s considered a pop-up service. Since sharing the news of his cafe’s closure, others have offered to partner with him or act as investors. Former employees have reached out to share memories. Some have offered to cook as he plans a farewell brunch for his regulars. That, more than anything, gets him emotional.

“This place was my heart and soul—aside from my kids, this was my life,” he tells The Coast. “I’ve been pretty proud of what I’ve achieved. But I’m feeling more pride in the past few days, with what people have been telling me.

“It’s just sad to see it end this way.”

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...
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