Old-fashioned curb service makes a comeback at Quebec City diner
Third-generation owner dug up trays his grandfather used decades ago to serve customers in their cars
Éric Sanfaçon's customers have talked to him so much about his grandfather Lorenzo, he feels like he knows everything about him — even though they never met.
And he's hearing those stories even more these days, after reviving a former staple of the Quebec City restaurant Lorenzo opened in the 1950s: eat-in-your-car curb service.
The idea came to Éric after Buffet Royal, along with restaurants across the province, was ordered by the government to close its dining room in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Relying only on delivery and take-out service to stay afloat, Éric started noticing customers were eating their meals in their cars or on the sidewalk.
That's when he thought back to the hooked trays his grandfather used for decades.
Éric brought it up with his father, also named Lorenzo, who co-owned the business from 1973 up until last month. Lorenzo told him the original trays were just sitting in the restaurant's basement.
"I got chills," said Éric. He thought he would bring the old trays out for a few days to have a laugh with his regular customers, but the regulars quickly convinced him to bring back the service in full.
Word got around, and people from all over the city started driving up to Buffet Royal to relive a bygone era.
"We had a couple who celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary here, in their car, because this is where they met," said Éric, who has now been offering curb service for two weeks.
Physical distancing at its best
Customers pick a parking space, call the number posted on the front window of the restaurant to place their order — making sure to specify the colour and model of their car. The food arrives minutes later and sits on the small metal surface, hooked onto the car window.
"Two honks when you're done and we come out to pick everything up," Éric said, limiting contact as much as possible.
After a rough spring for many people across Quebec, and with many services still closed, he's glad he can offer some comfort to his customers.
"It really makes people smile," he said. "People are patient and grateful."
Lorenzo Sanfaçon opened Buffet Royal in 1956 in Beauport, before the municipality merged with Quebec City.
Fries cost 20 cents. A giant lobster roll, or guedille, was $1.20.
Yves Sanfaçon, Éric's uncle who co-owned the restaurant with his brother until 2011, remembers seeing the parking lot packed on Friday nights with customers driving up in their huge automobiles.
VIDEO: Take a look at the diner's "throwback" solution to social distancing
"It was practical, too," said Yves. The giant front seats were big enough to hold the trays, while people spent the evening listening to music and chatting with their neighbours, he said. "The customers loved it."
Marie-Thérèse Boisvert and Damien Bouchard, regulars at Buffet Royal, remember spending many Friday evenings there.
"After work, at the end of the week, we'd come here — it was like a meeting place," said Boisvert.
Bouchard said that when Éric told him he was planning on bringing back curbside service, "the memories just started flooding back."
Thirty-five years later, the couple still eats at the restaurant regularly, sticking to the classics: a chicken guedille for Boisvert, while Bouchard goes for the poutine.
But regulars don't only come for the nostalgia — they also come for the home cooking.
While he's introduced a few new items, like General Tao poutine, Éric Sanfaçon has kept most of the restaurant's staples, including the homemade fries, made from scratch every morning.
Keeping his grandfather's legacy alive is part of his motivation to continue, despite the uncertain times brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
"I think he would have been proud of seeing the business today," he said.
With no clear date for when restaurants will be able to reopen, Éric plans on keeping the service for the summer.
Even if restaurants are allowed to reopen in the coming weeks, he said many are expecting it will only be at 50 per cent capacity. He said that won't be viable for the long term, making those 15 parking spaces a valuable asset.
Éric is also glad he was able to work on the project with his 70-year-old father, who signed off his last shares of the business in May, after working seven days a week at Buffet Royal for most of his life.
"I was able to share this with him," said Éric. "I'm happy I was able to make it happen."
With files from Julia Caron