Now celebrating its 40th anniversary in downtown Toronto, Freetimes Café’s longevity is a testament to Judy Perly’s resolve. Rooted by her love of people, music, community and all things Jewish, the restaurant has become a staple in Toronto, and Jewish communities.
I spoke to the proud owner over the phone as she reflected on four decades in the food and entertainment business. From the joyful highs of Yiddish brunch to the low bouts of doubt on staying afloat in a tough business, Judy has pearls of wisdom to share. She is not afraid of frank conversation as we delved into the realities that are facing restaurants during a period of unprecedented lockdowns that threaten the existence of most small businesses. But this isn’t the first time Perly’s business has faced difficulties and as she says, “it’s the strong foundations that keep you in the game.”
Ok Judy, let’s get into it. So you’re going on 40 years! Mazel Tov. Let’s discuss the successes and trials of a business entering it’s fifth decade.
So, we just celebrated 25 years of our Yiddish brunch. Inventing the brunch was the thing that really saved my business and made me happy. It gives longevity to my business because I started a whole new aspect with new customers, and I got a lot of publicity on it. Much more than I was getting as a music venue. You know most people underestimate the difficulty of coordinating the different aspects [of owning a restaurant]. You’re not just a store, you’re three things: manufacturing, selling or retail, and then you’re serving food and drinks. Three things you have to do really, really well all at the same time with not a lot of notice.
It can be an unforgiving business.
Oh yeah, I cried for years! And every restaurant owner has cried for years. It does push your buttons. It can be really difficult. The restaurant industry was on shaky ground for the last 10 years anyway. All the laws are against us and once the ordering apps came in it took away a lot of business. People don’t go out as much as they did. You can also buy so much prepared food now, and then the parking has changed. . .I had to have such an outstanding event like my Yiddish brunch to get Jewish customers to come down, because during the week you don’t get as many. You really have to be outstanding, like over the top!
So what brought you into the restaurant business?
Going into the restaurant business was never a plan for me; in fact, most things in life have never been a plan. I think we plan too much. I think we should lead with our values and see where it takes us. You know people walk through the door at Freetimes and they say, “what a great idea” and I’d say, “what a big mistake!” This business is much more of a mistake than an idea. I think life is more of a mistake than an idea!
I agree! And sometimes the best things come out of mistakes.
We should relish mistakes and not be afraid to try things. Even if it doesn’t work out the next thing could be so much better. We’d never have gotten there if it wasn’t for the mistake.
How does one survive the industry for so long? And especially now when small businesses are struggling to survive?
Well, it’s not one thing it’s many things, like providing for a family and not giving up on it. I always say when I started I wanted to quit every day, then it was every week, then every month, then it was a couple times a year … It’s levelled off around there. You know COVID has been bad but for me personally my business has been destroyed already about four times before. All those times before it was much more difficult because I never got any help from the government. I’m very thankful for it.
But I’ve almost used up all the money I’ve gotten and it’s going to be a long haul—believe me. I think it’s going to be a long time before things settle down, probably 2022. I think 2021 is going to be a transitional year. The government is going to give money until the summer but that’s not going to be enough—hopefully they’ll increase it. But high-end restaurants will be slaughtered.
So then, this isn’t your first rodeo.
No not at all. After 10 years I burnt down—I had to start all over again. Then there was SARS, 9/11— and that destroyed my brunch because nobody was travelling. Then I had construction on College Street for two years, which destroyed my business for those years. And each time these disasters happen I kind of have this part of me that can play pretend—and I just compartmentalize, and I say ok this is happening but I can’t do anything about it right now, so I’ll just focus on something else. I always try to focus on improving, being creative, and moving on.
Can you give me an example of how you’re still bringing in business?
Thank God that we’re focused on Hanukkah and the 500 dozen latkes that we’re hoping to sell. I think it’s going to be very last minute this year and a few days before people will be thinking, “latkes!” and then the phone will be ringing off the hook, but we’re prepared— we’ve been stockpiling them for months now. You know we’ve evolved things through since Passover when we didn’t necessarily have the proper packaging, but we’ve resolved that in a better way. But you’ve got to be tough in this world. You’ve got to be willing to take risks otherwise people forget about you, they move on.
For sure, and I know Freetimes has been so important to the older Yiddish community.
You know we are the only venue that has weekly Yiddish and Klezmer music [at our brunch] in the world! And free too—never charged cover for the music. We also hosted the Yiddish vinkle (corner), which was very popular with the older crowd. We had a professor come in who gave a whole lecture on the theory of relativity in Yiddish!
Judy, thank you so much for your time and again congratulations on 40 years! I hope and pray the Freetimes’ doors will once again open. I’ll be the first one in. I think it’s safe to say you’re going nowhere.
Devoting myself to my business was the day I started to be happy. Because if you don’t devote yourself to things that you are doing, then you’re always second guessing yourself and you’re always unhappy because it’s never good enough. Things will always come along on a daily basis that make you feel unhappy but if you have this overall devotion…you know Judaism teaches you that. It teaches you devotion to the family, to the community, to God. It’s spiritual and it’s very important.
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Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Saul Feinstein is a musician and photographer based in Toronto.