One afternoon, in 2013, I bought a slice from Cora Pizza. It was big and cheesy and covered in garlic, and I was down to the crust in a couple of minutes. When I took my last bite, I felt something hard in my mouth – and spat out a rusty staple. It had been baked into the crust. I stayed away from Cora for a few months, but the convenience and the price called me back. One staple, I reasoned, was probably just a fluke. If Public Health keeps this place open, how bad could it be?
According to one employee:
“Save your life …. and your children’s lives. … stay away from Cora Pizza”
“Immediate Health Hazard”
Cora Pizza opened, in its current location on Spadina Avenue, in 1984. It was an immediate success with students, who appreciated its proximity to the UofT St. George campus, late hours, and low prices. But Cora was also well-known for violating health and safety regulations. On Monday, December 21 2009, the Toronto Star reports, a complaint prompted Toronto Public Health to investigate. The initial statement found the restaurant guilty of several crucial violations, including a “number of dead rats and fresh droppings”. The restaurant was closed pending a follow-up examination, but when the inspectors returned, on Wednesday, Cora failed again.
The Toronto Star didn’t specify who filed the complaint against Cora in 2009, but a man named Ian has an idea. He started working at Cora in 2009, and he was there when they were forced to close. Ian says that it wasn’t a customer – he had Cora shut down, and he wants to do it again.
“First-Hand Experience at this Disgusting, Immoral Restaurant”
I met Ian outside Sid’s Cafe, where we sat for our interview. At 53 years old, he is energetic and athletic. By his own account, he is an active runner, spinner, and rower, and practices several varieties of martial arts. He is also a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, which he joined, he explains, because he didn’t want marginalized people to be bullied. Ian talks freely and passionately. I ask very few questions, mostly prompts like “How did this happen chronologically?” and “How specifically did he attack you?” It’s obvious that Ian has a grudge against Cora, where he still works, and that he’s passionate about health code violations. He brought to our meeting an official-looking file with RESTRICTED stamped on it. Inside were military papers; grades from school, where he studied to be a legal assistant; and his credentials as a spin instructor.
Ian was hired at Cora in 2009. You might be able to picture him as the tall man with a shaved head who stood behind the counter. In those days, he says, employees were told to pick through the garbage so they could reuse paper plates. Cleaning was done only when the health inspector was expected, and even then it was a “surface clean”. Food was prepared with cigarettes dangling from the mouth, ash falling onto the cutting board. And of course, there were rats.
In 2010, after the shut-down, the interior of Cora Pizza was completely renovated. At that time, Ian says, it was “spotless”. Ian was fired but DineSafe, Toronto’s health inspection program, continued to report violations after the reopening. Infractions recorded since 2010 include:
Operator fail to properly maintain equipment
Operator fail to provide adequate pest control
Operator fail to ensure food is not contaminated/adulterated
“I Just Couldn’t Believe How Black this White Cloth Was”
In 2013, Cora was sold, but the old practices continued. The new owners didn’t know that Ian had tipped off Toronto Public Health, so he was rehired in 2014. Every time he goes into the restaurant he’s disgusted. As recently as last week – March 19, 2015 – he’s seen things that could drive away customers for life. The staff leave their lit cigarettes in the ovens to hide them from customers. They continue to smoke while preparing vegetables, and continue to let ash mix with the produce. The back door, which is always open, blows dirt and dust from outside onto the uncovered dough. That dough can sit by the door for as long as four days before it is cooked into pizza. There’s a stain on the prep station wall – Ian struggles to describe it, but he keeps trying. The wall is black, he says. It’s ungodly, he says. “It was dirt, and it was cigarette smoke, and it was pizza toppings, and people had sneezed and blown their snot on the walls.”
Cooks sharpen their knives then immediately use them on the food, blending metal shavings with the produce. Mould continues to grow in pans. Years-old slabs of food are sometimes removed by a paint chipper, but usually they’re left to fester. It seems almost impossible that a restaurant that dangerous could stay open in a city like Toronto.
“You Cannot Disclose this Information”
The trick, Ian explains, is dishonesty. He doesn’t know everything that goes on behind closed doors, but he knows that it’s not right. Only two employees are certified food handlers, but others work in the kitchen. All employees are paid under the table, in cash, and are told to declare the minimum income. They do not pay the Workplace Safety Insurance Board or any other government agency. Sometimes a stranger calls asking for the names of all the employees. Ian is careful not to reveal any information – he’s embarrassed more than anything – but one of his coworkers, a newcomer to Canada, once gave away personal information about the staff to an unidentified person over the phone.
I don’t know who else is investigating Cora. This could be the sign of an impending shutdown, or a lawsuit. But Cora Pizza is a resilient restaurant. Like the rats it once housed, it has a tendency to fit through the cracks, to find a way and survive. The only way Cora will stop hurting the people of our community is if we stop patronizing them, if we put aside the convenience and the price and remember the rats, the smoke, the dust, the metal shavings, the dirt, the snot, and the filth.