Café Lara is a community hub, a bar at dusk, and a place to get a good cup of coffee.

“I have always been a community activist at heart, and interested in business as well, and I love coffee so I found a way to bring those passions into one,” says owner Lara Cusson, who opened the Agricola Street coffeeshop in 2018.

For her, the café experience is about changing someone’s day with a simple interaction—reaching out and extending a helping hand. “Those simple things make everyone work in a more collaborative way,” says Cusson.

That creates a sense of community, a second home and a special work environment you don’t get in every workplace, she says. Café Lara hosts events: bilingual improv nights, clothing swaps, and book launches. “The North End has been incredibly welcoming and inclusive,” says Cusson.

And Cusson has been the same.

“I had met Lara while I was on a course for Veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces while in Halifax,” says Khaled El Seweify, a friend of Cusson and supporter of the café. “I was taking street art photos at a local pub when I [met] her and her sister. We got to talking and she invited me to come to her cafe. The next day I, along with two colleagues, went to have a coffee.”

When El Seweify came to the shop with his colleagues, he immediately felt the warmth and wonderful atmosphere at the place. “I felt right at home, even to the point where I made coffees for us and a couple of clients as I have taken a barista course,” he says.

El Seweify and Cusson have discussed showcasing his photography in the café in the future. He feels the spot reflects how Halifax is evolving. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of turning Halifax into this amazing city,” Cusson says. “Young people [are] choosing to live here, business is booming, and it’s an exciting time to be in Halifax.”

But as things were picking up steam, COVID-19 threatened what she and her team built. Around the province, traffic dwindled as business owners scrambled to find ways to pay rent. In March, the province introduced a rent deferral program.

“The premier gave small businesses three days to sign a contract with their landlord where their rent would be deferred for three months,” says Cusson. If they couldn’t pay the rent after those three months, the province would secure the loss with landlords.  “We saw this as the province choosing to protect landlords instead of commercial tenants, small business owners.”

Some business owners felt bullied into signing those agreements because they didn’t have the money to pay rent. “With no revenue there’s no money,” Cusson says. “That means businesses that reopen will reopen with more debt they they’ve ever had.”

Cusson and fellow business owners felt like the people making the decisions didn’t represent them. “So we decided to form a group, called the Nova Scotia Small Business Association,” she says.

Cusson became the chair of the association and wrote a letter explaining why the rent deferral program isn’t effective in saving small businesses during the pandemic. Over 400 small business representatives in Nova Scotia signed the petition.   

On June 5, the federal government introduced the CECRA program, in which commercial tenants pay 25% of rent, landlords pay 25%, and the government covers the remainder. “That could in fact keep businesses afloat and ready to open post-pandemic,” says Cusson.

But the province didn’t make it mandatory for landlords. “Because a lot of landlords already had agreements with their tenants on the rent deferral program, they said why would I pay 25% of the rent, when I could get 100%?” says Cusson.

Additionally the government didn’t ban commercial evictions. “Just last week I can think of four or five businesses that have had their locks changed by their landlord,” says Cusson. She adds she knows of some landlords who have helped their tenants stay in business, “but many landlords are willing to sit on empty space.”

That puts renters at a disadvantage when negotiating agreements. “Basically we felt like we had no protection and nobody on our side, that we were doing this on our own,” says Cusson.

Her group hopes a commercial tenancy board can come out of this, a space where small commercial businesses can have protection and representation. On June 5, Nova Scotia began a slow reopening. It’s the only province in Canada that didn’t have a reopening timeline, meaning some businesses couldn’t reopen in time, some were ready but didn’t have willing staff, and daycares weren’t open.

“We just felt discouraged once more,” says Cusson. “We were really looking for some leadership during this time, and I think I can speak for most business owners in saying that we didn’t get the support we needed, and the public will see the results of that over the next year as businesses close.”

Since its reopening, the community has returned to Café Lara. “It was really emotional when we saw our regulars and neighbourhood friends,” Cusson says. “I’m grateful every day they keep coming in and supporting us.”

Cusson and her team are getting creative. They’re offering grocery and convenience items in bulk, including yeast, flour, eggs, and milk. On warm days, they keep the door propped open to reduce handling of the doors. There are markers inside, and plastic shields at the ordering station. The space is kept clean, they wipe between transactions and there’s hand sanitizer at the door and ordering station. The multiple entrances and exits allow for flow, and tables and chairs are spaced out, as per the public health rules.

These days, popular offerings include an affogato with a twist. “Affogato is typically espresso poured over ice cream, this one is espresso poured over Haagen-Dazs,” says Cusson.

Café Lara will be part of the Reopen City event (running on weekends from June 27–July 19), which celebrates local business. The café will offer a sangria special at the bar and sell local art, with proceeds going to the Black Business Initiative. Cusson doesn’t know when weekly events and programming will resume. Last summer, the café hosted weekly flamenco nights, featuring neighbourhood guitarist Daniel MacNeil.

“I looked around the room and they’re were people watching and dancing from the ages of two to 80, and this women came in and was sitting alone,” Cusson recalls. “She must have been in her 70s. She said to me ‘there’s this amazing feeling when I come in here. I feel like I don’t have to dress a certain way, I don’t have to look a certain way, I don’t feel too old. I can come in here and see myself, be alone and be comfortable.’ Those types of events make the job meaningful, and you realize you don’t have to do a lot to impact your community.” 

Halifax Magazine