Sassafraz has been nestled in the heart of Yorkville since opening in 1997, but it’s a rare landmark in the neighbourhood: there’s a quietly unassuming air about this restaurant where everybody’s welcome, whether you’re dressed in an Italian three-piece suit or stopping by for lunch after a gym session. It’s the kind of place where the chef specializes in gazpacho and Cornish hen equally, offering diners an unparalleled French-Canadian cuisine experience in Toronto.
“For us, it’s all about accessibility,” says Zoran Kocovski, owner of Sassafraz, “and we want to make sure that we’re inclusive of any Torontonian. So whether you’re coming in as a celebrity during TIFF or whether you’re visiting on a particular weekend to celebrate a special occasion, we want to make it fully accessible to you.”
When talking to Zoran, it quickly becomes apparent that the idea of community is very important to him. Sassafraz started sponsoring the Toronto International Film Festival way before the film festival grew to the heights it enjoys today. “TIFF was primarily in Yorkville only,” says Zoran, “and just after we had opened, we started to sponsor TIFF, so we’ve been a TIFF sponsor pretty well from the inception.”
Zoran and the rest of the Sassafraz team don’t just limit their scope to TIFF, though, as a number of organizations have special meaning to them. “I would say the one that’s closest to our hearts, because we’ve been touched by it personally, is the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada,” says Zoran. “We’ve been sponsors of the MS Society since 2005...we always have a feature cocktail for this sponsorship program — and we donate $5 from every cocktail sold."
And their goodwill doesn't end there, as Sassafraz also contributes to the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF); it' a cause that's dear to their hearts. Says Zoran: "... the reason why we launched that was it was a local fire department that saved the structure [of Sassafraz].”
To understand when, why and how community initiatives took on an added importance at Sassafraz, you have to go back to December of 2006. In the early afternoon on that cold day, a fire threatened to destroy one of Yorkville’s most iconic landmarks. Dozens of fire trucks raced to the scene and valiantly battled the blaze, but the fire had left a pretty ugly mark on the restaurant’s frame.
Everyone at Sassafraz was devastated, and they even seriously considered closing down. But when the community showed their love and support and urged them to re-open, Zoran knew the future of his restaurant would be more than okay. “It was such a traumatic experience,” he recalls, “but then we had the community rally and we had so much support from the community…after the fire when we saw how the community was so supportive of our organization, we thought it important that we give back.”
And so Zoran and his staff went to work over the next nine months, replacing a damaged live tree with a vertical hydroponic garden inside that grows 30 feet up the wall, and using the fire as an opportunity to remodel Sassafraz to look even more elegant than before.