This past month, U of T asked Gunash and Ali Shahidi, the owners and operators of the beloved Innis Café, to move out of their space in Innis College by June 15 due to impending construction. The university does not currently plan to provide the café with a temporary location to operate from during the construction, which will last until 2025. In an email to The Varsity, Gunash wrote, “We don’t know if we will come back [to Innis].”

In response, Sanchia deSouza, a UTSG PhD candidate studying history, created a petition asking U of T to provide Innis Café with a new kitchen on campus during the construction. Since its creation three weeks ago, the petition received over 3,100 signatures as of March 26. 

The order to vacate

In June 2021, the university first informed the Shahidi family that Innis College would undergo construction and that the café might have to close. The university then paused its plans due to COVID-19. 

During an interview with The Varsity, Gunash, co-owner and manager of Innis Café, said that, about a month ago, the University of Toronto informed Innis Café that the university would terminate its agreement with the Shahidis, ending their lease on August 3. During the week of March 6, the Shahidis received a letter from the Governing Council telling them that they would have to vacate by June 15, earlier than initially informed. 

In a statement to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson explained that U of T decided to end the lease because Innis College is “undertaking a major renewal and expansion [project] beginning this summer.” The university hopes to create new student focused spaces that will “enhance the student experience and improve accessibility.”

Gunash said that she and Ali respect the University of Toronto for their decision to close the café during the expected two years of construction. Gunash noted that, to stay on campus while Innis College is under construction, they would require a new space with a kitchen. The Shahidis plan to go to a new location for a while and do not know if they will return to Innis after the construction. 

The U of T spokesperson wrote that the Shahidis “are welcome to participate in competitive processes the University holds from time to time to select food service providers for other on-campus spaces.” 

Part of the construction at Innis College will include installing a larger café space. According to the university spokesperson, U of T will hold a “competitive process” to determine who will provide food in the renovated space. The spokesperson wrote that such a process is “consistent with the University’s normal practice for all food service locations on the St. George campus.”

Innis Café

The Innis Café, a family-run and operated food vendor, has operated out of Innis College at 2 Sussex Avenue for more than 22 years. Gunash and her husband Ali both obtained PhDs in nutritional sciences and worked in nutritional research in Türkiye. Gunash said that they decided to open the café because the university was “looking for healthier [food] options for students and reasonable prices.” 

When the café first opened, the menu consisted of a juice and salad bar along with two sandwich options. Now the café has an extensive menu including hot and lighter meals and vegetarian, vegan, and halal options. “[Students] can get a complete meal with very reasonable prices,” Gunash said. 

In addition to operating the café, the Shahidis also provide catering services on campus. The Innis Café catered barbecues in the Innis courtyard during the summer, as well as orientations around campus. Gunash wrote to The Varsity that, across the café’s history, the café has also hired approximately 70 students.

The petition

In the petition description, deSouza called on the U of T administration to provide the Innis Café with an alternative space including an on-site kitchen until the Innis College renovations finish. This would allow the Shahidi family to continue cooking for the U of T community. The petition also asks the university to “recognize that Innis Café” plays an important role in providing fresh and healthy food on campus, noting that the café sees up to 200 customers a day. 

In an email to The Varsity, deSouza wrote that she started the petition to “offer other customers… a way to show their support for the Shahidis and to show their interest in keeping Innis Café on campus and serving freshly made food.” 

DeSouza explained that she also created the petition, in part, to highlight the importance of having a family-owned and family-run business on campus. She wrote that many other food options on campus have a “much more corporate and impersonal feel.” 

In an email to The Varsity, Gunash wrote that the petition organizers contacted the Shahidis before creating the petition. “We appreciate what they did for us,” she wrote, noting that they value students’ recognition that the café plays an important role in providing fresh and healthy food to U of T’s community. 

In comments posted on the petition website, many expressed disappointment about U of T’s decision to remove an affordable, healthier alternative to campus food. The Innis Café accepts TBucks from student meal plans, allowing many students living in residence to buy food without spending their own money. 

Student reactions

In an email to The Varsity, deSouza explained that she moved to Canada from India in 2014 to begin her PhD program. She went to the café in her first week at U of T after a faculty member advised her to try the food. 

“For a newly arrived, very anxious, lonely and overwhelmed international student that I was back in 2014-2015, a warm smile and a friendly hello from Gunash, Ali or Damon meant a great deal,” deSouza wrote. “I felt like community and connection would be possible in Toronto, a place that was very different in terms of social dynamics from the cities in India I’d previously lived in.”

Anya Carter, a fourth-year student in English and book and media studies, worked at the café from September 2019 to March 2020. She wrote in an email to The Varsity that “it was really interesting to be in a workplace that wasn’t part of a big conglomerate — they care about their customers a lot.” Carter recalls a worker letting a frequent customer pay late because the customer and employee had formed a bond of trust. “That wouldn’t happen in a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons, for example,” she wrote. 

I’ve had multiple friends say that the only thing getting them through the day was an Innis Café chicken burrito. When [the COVID] lockdown happened, I missed their chicken burritos more than any other attribute of campus life,” she said. She agrees with the petition’s demands and wants U of T to “acknowledge the students’ frustration about this situation.”

DeSouza wrote that “[Innis Café] has been, over the years, a great place to meet friends and colleagues to eat together and talk about work and life, as well as share those killer Innis Café brownies.” As a grad student who spends a lot of time in Robarts Library, she highlighted the café’s convenient location.

Cassandra Gu is a third-year Innis College student specializing in biological chemistry. In an interview with The Varsity at the Innis Café, she said she knows “a lot of people come here just to hang out or to study. It’s nice to have a place to grab a snack.” 

After being informed that the Innis Café would close in June, Gu characterized the upcoming closure as “unfortunate,” highlighting the nice atmosphere of the café. 

“It’s a loss for Innis College,” she said.

With files from Sarah Artemia Kronenfeld.