Toronto’s restaurants get creative to lure film festival celebrities
By Tara Dechamps
If you have a hankering for a Calii Love poke bowl for lunch on the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, you’re out of luck unless you’re Meryl Streep or one of the dozens of other stars who will flock to the city for the annual September event.
The popular fast casual restaurant along King St. W. will close its doors to the public until 6 p.m. on this coming Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday — the festival’s busiest days — to host a celebrity photography studio and lounge in partnership with the entertainment publication Deadline.
It’s a move some businesses might worry would cost them sales, but Calii Love owner Dan Gunam has a different strategy: bringing in celebrities could increase brand awareness and, if they post a snap at his hot spot, deliver plenty of cash when the festival is over from people who want to dine like the stars.
“We take a little hit on the sales for the talent to be here in the first four days, so I look at it as marketing,” said Gunam, whose partnership with Deadline over the last few years has netted him visits from George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, among others.
“We end up drawing the talent’s faces on their coffee and they share it on social media,” he said. “We don’t ask them to do it, but those types of comments that they share gives us a great following and credibility.”
Gunam’s arrangement places Calii Love in a growing group of restaurants near the festival’s theatre strip that are willing to make a bet that planting Hollywood’s biggest stars within their walls can be even more lucrative than the snaking lineups that restaurants have become accustomed to every year during TIFF.
Being associated with celebrities or featured in their social media posts can pay off. Consumers are willing to spend up to 20 per cent more on a celebrity endorsed product, a study from a professor at the IE Business School in Madrid found. Another survey, conducted by Twitter and analytics company Annalect in 2016, revealed about 40 per cent of respondents had purchased something online based on seeing it used by an influencer on social media and about half also shared such content, driving further exposure.
Gunam believes those studies’ conclusions because his Deadline partnership has produced crowds outside his restaurant every TIFF. He also sees an uptick in sales later in the festival after the public spots social media shout-outs from stars such as Hugh Jackman, who once posted a photo of a Calii Love barista and the latte he prepared bearing the star’s face.
Jackman captioned it, “If you’re in Toronto, stop in for an awesome flat white,” and tagged Calii Love —
a restaurateur’s dream.
Given the success of the Calii Love partnership, Gunam has also started hosting events at Love Child Social, a co-working space and nightclub at King and Bathurst Sts.
Dozens of his neighbours have had similar ideas, forming partnerships with Hollywood magazines, festival sponsors and distribution companies that are looking to fete the year’s films but desperately in need of prime TIFF real estate to do so.
Down the street from Gunam, Assembly Chef’s Hall will close its entire space for lunch service on the first Saturday afternoon of TIFF for a gathering put on by Twitter Canada that will feature Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart and Lorene Scafaria discussing women’s empowerment.
Laura Pearce, Twitter Canada’s head of marketing, said the location was ideal for the event because it can accommodate a panel and cocktail hour, has an array of food stalls that will serve something to match every diner’s taste and, most importantly, offers a prime location.
“You can imagine with the talent that we have, we have a big guest list and don’t want anyone to feel excluded from this amazing opportunity, so Assembly Chef’s Hall offers us the size we need,” she said, noting that the social media giant will also rent a space it has dubbed Twitter House across from Roy Thomson Hall to hold a video and celebrity lounge with Elevation Pictures.
The benefits restaurant owners and other brands see from the festival are not unusual, given that TIFF estimates the event brings $189 million to the economy every year. The festival doesn’t offer a breakdown of how much money it generates for individual industries, but the financial benefits are felt across dozens of sectors. Hotels, bars, stores, airlines, cab services and entertainment companies all get a boost from the visiting film community and locals wanting to be near the action.
While proximity to the festival usually dictates how much foot traffic TIFF will drive to a business, that hasn’t stopped pockets of the city far from the festival from trying to cash in.
Yorkville restaurants still host a sprinkling of TIFF events, despite the festival having vacated the area for the Entertainment District years ago.
And then there’s the case of Grinder Coffee, a Leslieville cafe that in 2018 campaigned on social media for Ryan Gosling to visit while he was at the festival to premiere First Man.
Owner Joelle Murray went so far as to deck out her cafe with a life-size cut-out of the star sipping a coffee emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo.
“I was sitting down doing my HST and one of my customers working on his computer at the front of the shop said there’s a really big car outside. By the time I jumped up, (Gosling) was walking through the door, and I went running,” Murray recalled.
“His story was that his mother had seen our campaign and told him to come in. Our joke was that mom had coffee for life.”
The visit, which only lasted 10 minutes, paid dividends for days.
“We had a lot of people coming in and we became a lot of people’s local,” said Murray. “I’ve had visitors from Russia and Taiwan and Thailand and all over the world come and take pictures with me and with the cardboard cut-out.”
The year prior, Murray has set her sights on Idris Elba, who was in town to promote Molly’s Game, fashioning a chalkboard with three reasons why he should visit: “(Murray) promises to stop calling him her boyfriend, he hasn’t lived until he’s shopped Gerrard Square and we have damn fine coffee.”
Elba never showed, but she doesn’t consider it a bust because of the buzz her campaign created without her shelling out big bucks that a small business doesn’t have.
“While I didn’t achieve the ultimate goal, people were talking about it, customers were excited about it and I was having a lot of fun with it … so we’ve achieved success,” she said.
“Now we are going to see if we can get Tom Hanks this year.”