to Empty Seats:
How La Morena is responding to the food world closing
From left to right: Andres, David, Marcelo, Graciela, Gabriela
October 16, 2020
So we're back here again. Cases have skyrocketed just as expected, and indoor dining has closed for at least the next 28 days. Mortgage and loan payments are due after being postponed for who knows how long. It feels like the worst is yet to come, especially when it comes to the food industry. We all hear about how badly businesses are doing, what the government is trying to do to help blah blah blah. But what about the people? Where are the voices from those that are forced to shut their doors at a moments notice? I haven't heard from them in my city, and that's a damn shame. Who better to explain how the pandemic has shocked the industry than those that are in the fire? I want to put a voice to those people, and this is how this came about. I asked the family behind La Morena, an Ecuadorian spot on St. Clair serving up South American classics, to share who they are and how they started, what they’re seeing in their community, how they’ve been affected, and how they’re responding.
KG: Hey guys, thanks for taking the time out to do this, I really appreciate it. Let's get straight into the action. First off, I want to get an idea of who you are, who the family is, and who’s behind La Morena.
Andres Rosero (son), La Morena: Ya, so it’s my father, my brother, myself, my mother, she’s the one who cooks, she’s the chef, and that’s basically it. My sister helps as well. It’s just all family.
Marcelo Rosero (Dad), La Morena: Before we started to open the store I spoke with my son because I’ve been in this industry for 40 years. I’ve worked in hotels, restaurants, discos, everything. My ex wife, who’s in the kitchen, has the same experience as me.
A: Ya, a long time.
M: We decided to open, we found this small place, I spoke with two of them to see if we could do something for ourselves because we’ve always worked for other people and we have the knowledge of our food. There is not another place in Toronto like this. Maybe you find one with empanadas, but everything all together is here. Everything is fresh made and there’s a lot of elaboration in our dishes. Then we started in the business, trying this trying that, and we had a large menu in the beginning.
A: Ya, we really did.
M: Trying to see what goes with the flow of the area; getting to know the people. So, thanks to the sacrifice, it was hard at the beginning but people help us a lot. The costumers, we’ve had a few celebrities come visit us, so we’ve been lucky in that way, so they’ve helped us a lot, and here we are.
KG: That’s amazing. So this really is a family affair. How has it been working with family? We've heard that it can be a good thing or bad thing, how has it been?
M: Like everywhere else, it’s a little hard in the beginning to accommodate the ideas. There can only be one idea for everybody, because not everyone can have their own idea and do their own thing. We have zero experience in this because it’s different working with your family professionally. But, we all have different ideas and we have to take my idea plus whatever else everyone thinks because everyone has something to add. At the beginning it was hard to put everything together, but after a few months now we are ok. Everything is going very well, and together we make the decisions to do this or that. It’s a lot easier now.
KG: Got it. Now, tell me about the actual food, because I’ve lived here (Dufferin and St. Clair) all my life. I’ve been down St. Clair, I’ve seen the countless Italian and Portuguese spots, but I’ve also seen it grow and diversify to include more and different. For me, as someone that does have South American roots, I haven’t seen a place like this on this street in a long time.
M: But you have to understand the evolution of things. Like you don’t have that many Italians anymore here, and they all move North.
A: Ya, a lot of them retired too.
M: I’ve lived here 42 years as well, and I know how this area was too. There’s been a big change on St. Clair. Lately there are Mexican places all over, and we are the only Ecuadorians here. We are the only ones here in Toronto with a business like this. For me, the most important thing is to be original. You don’t have to be like someone else. If you have something original then you will be ok. And people accept us and our food, a lot of compliments, and that’s the main thing for us.
KG: Is there a reason why you chose St. Clair and Dufferin? This corner is iconic in the fabric of Toronto. Why here? Why in this area, on this corner?
M: Myself, I grew up in downtown from when I came to Canada, and I’ve seen everything develop little by little. I’ve known this area was 100% Italian at one time. But now, we’ve been lucky to find this place you know. Before this was a sandwich place.
A: Ya they used to sell hotdogs here.
M: Yes there was nothing here that was out of this planet to have a hotdog place. So, we took over the place and we are ok now. We are doing very well man. The location is fantastic for many reasons. We have a lot of foot traffic and it’s a nice neighborhood as well. All the people are fantastic man, all the people around here.
A: We found this place by chance because my sister was on her way to school when she saw that the place was for lease. We made a few calls and we really didn’t hesitate. We knew we wanted to do something and we just dived in.
KG: Tell me more about the menu. Talk to me.
M: Yes everything is very traditional Ecuadorian food, and then we added some Argentinian, Chilean, and Columbian empanadas.
A: All the South American classics.
Dad: Ya, but the tamales that we make are Ecuadorian tamales. These are very different from other tamales. We make a big one. It’s a full lunch. Chicken, pork, and vegetarian. The empanadas as well. Every week me make something different because you can do whatever with empanadas.
KG: Ok, let's switch gears to talk about the current day situation. It’s no secret that the food industry has been hit the hardest during this pandemic. How did it affect La Morena?
A: We are about to be open for one year, so when we were forced to close it was devastating. We were put in a position where we didn’t know what was going to happen. But we closed and we waited. It was a very scary time but when we were able to re-open we did and we made some changes and we’ve been ok since.
KG: You mentioned changes. What are some of the ways you've had to adapt since the early days?
A: We had to rearrange the space to make it friendly for take out. Although we have seats in here, all of our food is available for takeout. Usually the display case is closer to the back with the empanadas but we brought it right to the front window for the people outside to see. It’s been very helpful and the people have been great.
KG: Are you on any delivery apps?
A: Not right now, no. Our food is made on a weekly basis for the most part, so whatever we make we usually sell out in that week. We’ve thought about doing our own delivery with my dad driving around. It’s an option and we’re still thinking about it.
KG: Winter's around the corner and the second wave is here. How are you guys preparing for the very near future?
A: It’s hard to prepare because no one knows what’s going to happen. We will continue doing what we can in the meantime, and if we have to close our business for some time then we will do that. We take it day by day.
KG: Final thoughts. As a business owner in the food industry in the midst of a pandemic, what do you want people to know?
A: Word of mouth is huge when it comes to our business. We get customers all the time that have heard of us from someone, and I don’t think people know how powerful word of mouth is. If you love a place and you want to support them, tell your friends.
KG: Something so simple. Thank you.
La Morena: 1175A St Clair Ave W
Check them out here