Len Senater has always gone through life stomach first. His love of food is what led him to opening The Depanneur, which he doesn’t consider a restaurant, but “a place where interesting food things happen.”
Opened in 2011, The Depanneur – Quebecois for corner store – is in Senater’s words, “a social experiment”, focusing on creative ways to provide good food at prices that allows all to participate while engaging the local community.
Located at 1033 College Street in Toronto, Ontario, within walking distance of Senater’s home, the Depanneur’s mission is to provide more meaningful food experiences. “Food can be incredibly meaningful across race and cultures to create human connections between people,” he says “and the regular restaurant model doesn’t take advantage of this incredible thing.”
Senater, 48, was born in Montreal and moved to Toronto when he was seven. After spending his final high school year in Paris on a student exchange program, he returned to Montreal and went on to study photography at Dawson College and Humanities at Concordia University. After graduating, he returned to Toronto and worked as a freelance graphic designer, eventually founding a marketing, communications and design agency called Hypenotic. He worked there for approximately 15 years before deciding to transition into something new. Always an entrepreneur and preferring to do things on his own terms he “was interested in doing something with food but the idea of cooking the same meals for people I would never meet was not the way I wanted to do it.”
Inspired by the phenomenon of pop-up restaurants, which, 10 years ago, was taking root around the world but not in Toronto, Senater was interested in finding out why. He realized the barrier to entry was quite high – the setup cost of doing a pop-up was so prohibited that very few people could consider it and the resulting events ended up being very expensive so very few people could attend them. Inspired by TUM – the now defunct Toronto Underground Market, and places like 18 Reasons – a San Francisco based non-profit community cooking school offering classes for free to low-income kids, teens and adults through the Bay Area, he wanted to create a space that had everything needed to do a pop-up, but where you wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time, allowing a greater diversity of people to cook and a more diverse group of people to experience the events. “To focus on a participatory community approach to pop-up dining rather than an elite fine-dining approach and to use and leverage food to build on other social values.”
Elite fine-dining is not something that Senater is familiar with. “I eat a lot of left overs and a lot of noodles and dumplings”, one of his favourite spots being King’s Noodle Restaurant in Chinatown. “Toronto is one of my favourite cities in the world to eat because it has everything. There is almost nothing you cannot find in Toronto, especially in the lower-end international area. I don’t know much about fine dining. I go to Chinatown often and constantly see new restaurants opening. Even in the last 10 years we’ve seen this huge flourishing of spaces specializing in the regional cuisine of a specific place. However there are still lots of cultures underrepresented in Toronto – great African food, great Filipino food, First Nations cuisine.”
The Depanneur, or “The Dep”, as Senater refers to it, helps fill that gap by offering a low barrier way for people to experience international foods, focusing on home cooking rather than the restaurant scene. Recent events include a Zimbabwean Pies Drop-in Dinner, a Gifting Kimchee workshop and a Mexican Street Food lunch and learn.
Senater’s love of trying new foods was influenced by his father. Born into a Romanian-Jewish family, his father was a jeweller, sadly his mother passed away when he was young. “I can’t remember if my mom was particularly a good cook. I remember enjoying her tuna casserole with canned cream of celery soup and when you’re eight it’s the best thing ever. My dad was always an adventurous eater. I learned to cook from him and that was my gateway to developing an enthusiasm for cooking.”
Building The Dep has had its own set of challenges. Originally meant to be a café during the day and run events at night, the daytime scenario did not work out and Senater ended up losing a lot of money. He also faced multiple regulatory challenges from the Toronto Fire Department and City of Toronto Zoning By-Laws as his model was outside the traditional box of enterprises the departments were used to dealing with.
Another a-ha moment was “when I couldn’t pay staff because I had no money left. That was certainly an a-ha. That was a clear indicator that what I was doing at the moment was not working.”
These early lessons and his ability to pivot have allowed Senater to build the Dep into what it is now, running over 270 unique culinary events a year including workshops, table talks, drop-in dinners, supper clubs, a Levantine weekend brunch and a kitchen in the basement which can be rented out.
Senater has also built a separate non-profit organization called the Newcomer Kitchen. In 2016 when he first heard of Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto, many of them were stuck in hotels for months with no access to kitchens or a way to cook food for their families. Senater extended an invitation to cook in his kitchen and now he works with more than 80 Syrian families in the GTA. Every Wednesday, a group of Syrian women come to the Dep and prepare 50 meals that are sold online for pickup or through free delivery sponsored by Foodora. The revenue is split between the families and to date The Dep has put $140,000 into the pockets of these families.
The evolution of the Dep has seen a shift to an online, social media presence with over 10,000 followers. Recently he has partnered with Airbnb, promoting daytime culinary experiences to people visiting from out of town. The Dep is also participating in Airbnb’s Social Impact Experiences – inspiring activities hosted by non-profits that connect travellers to their cause.
How does he stay motivated? “There’s nothing quite as motivating as sinking your life savings into something. That’s a great source of motivation. It’s also a lot of joy and fun and something I deeply believe in. I believe in the power of food, believe that food can generate community and connect people and doesn’t have to be fancy or luxurious – it is important to commit to something to push against the ever increasing polarization of people with money and people without. Trying to show it was possible to do things in a different way. It’s not just your job, it’s everything you believe in.”
As for the future, Senater is facing new challenges, such as a 60% rent increase in 2019, forcing a radical reconsideration of his current business model. In his eyes, this is an opportunity to reimagine the Dep – ideas include looking at other locations, or expanding into the current building location and creating an urban food hub, similar to the Center for Social Innovation but with a food focus.
Has it all been worth it? “I think so. I feel very privileged and very lucky to have spent the last eight years working on something that I genuinely care about, that I truly enjoy. To be able to sustain myself this long doing something that I feel passionate about and that I feel contributes positively to the community in which I live, those things are rare, and I don’t know if everyone gets to do that. That is a great gift.”