As burglaries plague Chinatown businesses, one entrepreneur is making lemons into lemon meringue pie

Chinatown burglary
Jay Lim, 45, is the founder of 5:2:8 Creative Coffee Collective and architect and founder at 25:8 Architecture and Design.

In the wake of the pandemic, the Chinatown business community has seen its fair share of struggles, with high rates of crime, theft, drug use and vandalism. 

But the founder of 5:2:8 Creative Coffee Collective on Somerset Street West said he’s choosing to turn a recent burglary at his property “into something positive” and as a way to give back to the community.

Last week, Jay Lim was cycling down the street on his way to open the coffee shop for the day when he saw debris on the road that began “looking familiar.”

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“I was thinking it looked like our shop until I realized, ‘Oh, that is our shop,” he said. 

When Lim approached, he could see that a small window in the kitchen had been broken and the coffee shop had been “ransacked.”

Lim is no stranger to theft. In addition to founding the coffee collective, Lim is also an architect and the founder of 25:8 Architecture. Two years ago, the primarily remote-work design firm moved into a rented garage to use as an office.

5:2:8 Creative Coffee Collective on Somerset Street West was broken into last week.

Since it was decked out with a commercial kitchen, the new space inspired Lim and his team to start selling coffee out of their workplace, at first focusing on microroasters, and the passion project soon turned into what is now the coffee shop.

But once they started operating out of the small garage, Lim said his team experienced break-ins and thefts of supplies and tools. The coffee shop also had a break-in to its small camper van, which is used to host backyard concerts.

This newest burglary, though, was different. Lim said he noticed drug paraphernalia left behind, as well as burn-marks, he guessed from a lighter or attempted arson. 

Most interestingly, though, the theft targeted food, he said.

“They ransacked the kitchen, fridges, took our computers, our supplies … really cleared us out,” Lim explained. “They could have taken a lot, lot more, but it told us it was an attack of desperation and that made us feel very heartbroken, because nobody should have to steal for a meal.”

For example, while cookies and pastries weren’t stolen, takeout cups, sandwiches, bread, cheese and about eight litres of milk were. 

The 5:2:8 team closed for a day to do repairs and take inventory as well as check on the other tenants in the building. Then, Lim said, he sprang into action. 

“We made sure everyone was taken care of, then thought, ‘Why did this happen to us?’ We recognize the area we’re in and prosecuting isn’t going to help,” he explained. “We know this area is in need, so let’s turn it into something positive.”

In the nearly two weeks since the break-in, 5:2:8 has been working with local organizations and outreach programs, including Cornerstone Housing for Women and Somerset Health and Wellness Centre, to raise funds and donate food, such as the cafe’s popular grilled cheese sandwiches, to those in need.

“The food industry doesn’t have high margins to begin with, so it was a big hit. But we don’t do it for the money, it’s for the community,” Lim said. “Donating food for a week isn’t going to make a difference to us and the staff, but it will for those people in need. We’re fortunate not to worry where our next meal comes from. So I can give up a weekend out to help someone else and I think a lot of us can.

“We want to set an example. The neighbourhood is struggling and we all know someone who could use a hand every once in a while,” Lim said. “There’s so much hate and we didn’t want to be part of that.”

Between an increase in drug use, rising crime and continued racism, Ottawa’s Chinatown has not recovered from the pandemic – in fact, according to at least one business official, things might be getting worse.

A community located along Somerset Street West between Bay and Preston streets, Chinatown is home to eateries, shops, markets and festivals that support and celebrate Asian culture. But in an interview with OBJ in July, Yukang Li, Chinatown BIA’s executive director, said the community faces “big challenges” that are straining local business.

This week, Li told OBJ that, while there has been some progress, burglaries are increasingly an issue.

“I get up to three such reports (of burglaries) from our businesses a week,” Li said. “The situation is not getting any better for sure, given the number of incidents.”

Despite the struggles Chinatown is facing, Lim said he specifically chose it for the location of 5:2:8. 

“The BIA is excellent at picking up paraphernalia, naloxone kits are distributed to all the businesses,” he said. “This area is in a place of transition, close to downtown, with a safe injection site close by and parks that are frequented, but we’re not interested in displacing people.

“It’s part of being in an urban area and part of why we came here. We could have put our office anywhere, but we chose here because we did think we could help,” Lim continued. “Coffee shops are a community space. The costs are low and it brings people together and making that outreach is what we wanted to do.”

25:8 Architecture got its start working in affordable housing, Lim explained, and giving back is an integral part of his lifestyle. Now, he just hopes that other businesses and communities might be inspired to do the same. The response he is receiving from the community is a great start, he said.

“If we can get other people to think forward, that would be the greatest reward from this. To have empathy when this happens,” he said. “They’re not coming after me because they hate me, they’re coming out of desperation.”

While the burglary was certainly “disconcerting,” Lim said it makes him “think about the world differently.”

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through a break-in and I don’t want anyone to have to steal for a meal,” he said. “I want to encourage people to turn a bad situation into something good.

“Making lemons into lemonade isn’t enough. You need to make a martini, make a lemon meringue pie,” he laughed. “And I’ll do that any day.”

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