Sunday March 05, 2017

Meet the Montreal optician on a radical mission to make glasses affordable for everyone

Phillippe Rochette worked at upscale eyeglasses shops in downtown Montreal, but he hated sweet-talking customers into paying more for glasses than they could afford.

Phillippe Rochette worked at upscale eyeglasses shops in downtown Montreal, but he hated sweet-talking customers into paying more for glasses than they could afford. (Le Bonhomme à lunettes/Facebook )

Listen 21:14

Philippe Rochette is a Montreal optician on a radical mission. 

While a pair of glasses in a stylish shop can easily cost you more than $1,000, Rochette sells his for $100 or $200. 

But for customers who cannot afford that much, he will sell prescription glasses — frame and lenses — for $20. Or give them away for free. 

Sunday Edition producer David Gutnick's documentary is called "Two Sticks and Two Circles."

Glasses crusader

Phillippe Rochette says he has few overhead expenses, for example, he does his own accounting. (David Gutnick)

Crisis of conscience

When Philippe Rochette graduated from optician school, he had no trouble finding a job in an upscale shop in downtown Montreal.

Frames branded Ray-ban, Oliver Peoples, Prada, Luxor, Chanel, Prada, Armani and Versace were his bread and butter. He was making more money than he'd ever imagined, but something didn't feel right.

Rochette's politics lean to the left, and he was sweet-talking people into spending piles of money on bits of wire and plastic and a couple of screws.

Eventually, he hit a wall and quit his job. He couldn't live with himself.

He loved the job. He just hated the industry.

So Rochette decided to re-invent it. He founded a company called Le Bonhomme à lunettes — "the glasses guy."

'Glasses are not a luxury. Seeing clearly is a necessity. My mission is to make glasses affordable to everyone. How do I do that? It's actually pretty simple. When you buy glasses from me, here's what you are NOT paying for: head office space, a huge ad on a billboard along the highway or a 'prestigious' name on the frame. You don't pay for those things simply because I don't have any of them. I trust word-of-mouth and the dynamism and loyalty of community organizers.' - Philippe Rochette, The Bonhomme's Manifesto

In the homemade video on Rochette's website, he's dressed up in a loose white smock, a crazy grey wig and a giant moustache.

"Our prescription lenses are the same as those sold in all the shops, at less than half the price," Rochette says. 

It's a catchy video and good fun, but the message is serious: eyeglasses are way, way too expensive, and the whole industry — from the multinational frame and lens manufacturers to the owners of local shops — is to blame.

A couple of years ago, Rochette dared to say that publicly.

The Ordre des opticiens d'ordonnances du Québec — Quebec's professional order of opticians — was not amused.

Its disciplinary committee ruled that Rochette had violated their code of conduct by publicly criticizing fellow opticians and fined him $1,000. 

These days, he bites his tongue. He doesn't want to lose his licence. But he's not shy about explaining what got him into trouble.

"I said that if you come to our place, you do not need to pay for my condo in Florida because I don't have one," says Rochette. "You don't need to pay for flashy decorations, 'cause my office is in my apartment."

He decided to treat the fine as good publicity.

"1,000 bucks is the price of the truth," he says. 

Essilor-Luxottica merger

For decades, the eyeglass industry has largely been controlled by two companies: Essilor and Luxottica

Luxottica produces dozens of brands, including Ray-Ban, Oakley, Chanel, Prada, Versace and Paul Smith, and owns such chains as Lenscrafters and the Sunglass Hut.

Essilor, from France, is the world's largest producer of prescription lenses.

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An employee holds an ophthalmic lens in the 'special glasses' laboratory of the Essilor factory, on Jan. 19, 2015 in Ligny-en-Barrois, eastern France. (JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

In January 2017, the two companies merged to create the world's biggest eyewear firm. The $65-billion merger made business headlines around the world.

The new giant — Essilor-Luxottica — has 140,000 employees.

The stock market loves the marriage. On their own, the companies already made staggering profits. Together, they will become even more profitable and control even more of the market across the world.

The merger only added to Rochette's determination and disenchantment.

But Michael Toulch, the owner of Harry Toulch Optometrists in Montreal, says it's a competitive market — especially now that cheap glasses are readily available online. Consumers get what they pay for.

It is amazing what you can do with two circles and two sticks. - Michael Toulch

Toulch finds Rochette's analysis of the industry and the high price of glasses to be somewhat naive.

"The economics of it are not quite that simple, because the fittings and sheet plastic these things are cut from are expensive," he says. 

"Of course, there are frames that are made in mass moulds in the millions, but there are also products that are literally hand-finished and made on a smaller scale, so the economies of scale you can't compare."

How it works

Le Bonhomme à lunettes sells glasses to anyone.

Doctors, teachers, seniors, students and people on social assistance all get the same choices of frames. 

Glasses 2

'Ti-poil' has been Rochette's client for the past ten years. Brenda is one of 15 opticians who work with Le Bonhomme. (David Gutnick)

Most glasses sell for between $100 and $200, depending on prescriptions and the optional anti-scratch and anti-glare treatments.

But if you don't have the money — no problem. Nobody ever walks away without glasses because they can't pay.

They are all guaranteed for a year, and the "Bonhomme Bad Luck Special" means broken parts get fixed for free.

Glasses 1

At a community centre in east-end Montreal, a client's broken glasses will be fixed for free. (David Gutnick)

Rochette keeps his overhead low. He doesn't advertise, doesn't pay an accountant and buys his no-brand Chinese-made frames in bulk. His office is hidden away on the fourth floor of an industrial building.

Instead of waiting for customers to walk in the door, the opticians set up at tables in community centres, food banks and shelters all around Montreal.

Philippe grew up working class. These are his people.

Le Bonhomme à lunettes donates $10 from every pair of glasses sold to community groups. So far, he has donated more than $300,000.  

Glasses 4

Le Bonhomme à lunettes carries hundreds of glasses frames, ordered from a Chinese company in bulk. (Le Bonhomme à lunettes/Facebook )

When Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Community Council went looking for glasses for recently arrived Iraqi refugees, someone suggested Le Bonhomme à lunettes.

A friend of the council's executive director, Halah Al-Ubaidi, told her she got a pair of glasses there for $30. 

"I said, that cannot be real. How can that be?" Al-Ubaidi says with a laugh. "But it is real."

Once a week, Rochette comes to a community centre in a poor neighbourhood in Montreal's far east end for a couple of hours. He sits at a long conference table with his suitcases and garbage bag, stuffed with hundreds of different frames.

Every five or six minutes, someone comes in, sits down and hands over a piece of paper with an eyeglass prescription.

Glasses 3

Rochette talks to a client in the lobby of the Guy-Favreau YMCA in downtown Montreal. (David Gutnick)

A woman named Joanne Watson stops by to get her glasses fixed. 

"When I go to an eyeglass store, people are very snobbish, and they don't want to learn your story.... They just want to sell, sell, sell, sell," she says.

"When you are poor, all your energy, all your thinking [is] about saving money and doing things so they don't cost too much." 

She describes Rochette as an "altruist."

"He thinks about other people. I am not the only one who is poor.... [Many people] don't think about our society. They just think about themselves. It is the opposite of altruist."

Click the button above to hear David Gutnick's documentary "Two Sticks and Two Circles."