Montreal

Adapting, thriving, dying: Montreal restaurants in the age of COVID-19

About 10 per cent of restaurants in Quebec aren’t expected to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Others are finding themselves scrambling to make ends meet. Here’s a look at how some Montreal independent restaurants and cafes are trying to stay afloat.

While some restaurants have no choice but to close, others are getting creative with their offering

Chef Josh Crowe and Barbara Irwin are the co-owners of Monkland Tavern. They are among many Montreal restaurant owners trying to grapple with what COVID-19 means for the future of their business. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Two years ago, Marie-Josée Condrain and her boyfriend decided to take a leap.

After selling a family home and securing a line of credit, they opened Le Maizonneuve, their dream restaurant and bar in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

"We came into this dream, we had zero debts, we had savings," Condrain said, holding back tears. "Now, the reality is, I'm broke."

Le Maizonneuve has now closed permanently, just one of the 10 per cent of restaurants in the province that Restaurants Canada expects will go under due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Others are struggling, adapting to the new reality and trying to use creativity to stay afloat. The rare few finding success are doing so with mixed feelings.

Down on their luck

When the Quebec government announced that restaurants would have to shutter their doors to customers in mid-March, Condrain had to quickly make a decision: close up or try to sell food via takeout and delivery.

"I can start doing takeout — but do you know how much takeout you need to sell in order to pay rent, electricity and everything else?" she asked.

"You do the math and you can quickly figure out that it's going to take a heck of a lot of takeout to make it."

Condrain said she wasn't comfortable taking on a challenge of which she had no prior knowledge.
Marie-Josée Condrain posted this picture with her boyfriend and co-owner Jonathan Paquette on Facebook to announce the restaurant’s closure. (Le Maizonneuve/Facebook)

"Little did we know that this was going to last so long," she said.

Condrain and her boyfriend decided to apply for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) — the federal government benefit that offers a loan of up to $40,000 with deferred interest.

She said she immediately used a chunk of it to pay her suppliers. 

But as the pandemic dragged on, and any expectation of reopening seemed to be in the distant future, they had to make a decision.

"For us, it wasn't viable that we could just pack on these different loans and after, you'd just have to pay them back," she said.

"The truth of the matter is that we are going to have to pay for this for the next five years."

On May 14, they announced that Le Maizonneuve was closing for good.

New Kids on the Block

Over in Villeray, the trio of Karina Tétrault, Charles Thibault and Olivier Martinez were just getting ready to open the doors of Lundis au soleil.

The three dreamed of a restaurant that served the community, a place where people could swing by for a bite and explore the natural wines they have on offer. 

They held a raucous opening party right before pandemic restrictions came into force but never actually got to welcome customers inside.

"We kind of accepted slowly that it was not going to happen. It was not going to be the restaurant we wanted," Thibault said, sitting inside the empty place.

"Since that first week though, it's been more and more pleasurable."

They quickly shifted gears. The menu created by chef Frédéric Bourgault alongside sous chef Maude Lévesque had to be changed completely so the food worked for takeout.

"Right now, it's more a question of survival. It's a work in progress," said Thibault.

Karina Tétrault, Charles Thibault and Olivier Martinez are behind newcomer Lundis au soleil. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Social media became a must. They also started up a market every second week. It's a place where customers can get fish, vegetables and more, directly from producers who have a lot fewer restaurants to supply right now.

It's hard financially, with revenues definitely not meeting the owners' expectations. 

The restaurant also had its request for benefits from the government denied. They aren't eligible because they haven't seen a drop in revenue, for the simple reason they hadn't even opened yet.

Despite that, the owners say, things are going well, and customers are coming.

"We're happy," said Thibault. "For sure it's not the space we wanted to create but we're really proud of what we've done so far."

The Veterans

Monkland Tavern has sat at the corner of Monkland and Old Orchard avenues in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce for the past 25 years.

A popular restaurant, it's always been home to locals dining and partying until late at night. Not anymore.

"It's pretty lonely. It's just so different," said Barbara Irwin, who owns Monkland Tavern with chef Josh Crowe.

"You go from hosting to meeting people at the door behind a piece of plexiglass and handing them a box. It's a little sad."

The Monkland Tavern got a logo made by Dave Arnold, AKA Mr. Sign. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

After being closed for more than a month, last week the restaurant began offering takeout three days a week.

"It was a lot of work. To be honest with you, I didn't think it would take this much work," said Irwin, inside the restaurant which now has tables and chairs stacked up and pushed against the wall.

"Between the marketing and getting your logos … you realize along the way that there are all these aspects that you hadn't thought of until you get to them."

The restaurant took the time to properly prepare before offering takeout. They turned to Dave Arnold, AKA Mr. Sign, to design their logo, and an employee created the website.

The CEBA loan of $40,000 has proven very helpful. Irwin said the landlord has also deferred payment of rent.

But it's still a struggle. Takeout won't offer the same amount of revenue.

"It's virtually impossible," said Irwin. "But hopefully it will keep us going until we can open again. We're looking forward to that day."

The Rising Star

Dispatch opened in 2012 as Montreal's first coffee food truck and since, it's opened three cafés and now offers a monthly subscription service so you can brew the coffee at home.

It's the subscription service that has taken off since the pandemic started.

"Our online sales have been growing in this time," said founder and CEO Chrissy Durcak.

Dispatch owner Chrissy Durcak says that in a strange way, COVID-19 has actually accelerated her business plans to gain more revenue via e-commerce. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

"We've been seeing lots of online orders flooding in from across Canada but also here in the city."

The company saw a 221 per cent increase in online sales between February and March.

When restrictions were put in place, Durcak closed the three brick and mortar stores. The one at St. Laurent and Duluth has since reopened, allowing one customer at a time inside, but the rest of the space has been transformed into a distribution centre for its online sales.

Boxes with the Dispatch logo fill the space as employees fill orders and prepare them for delivery. Durcak said it was important for people not to see a sad, empty space.

"We've also been very fortunate to access a lot of the government subsidies available to us," Durcak said.

Dispatch received the CEBA loan as well as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

Empty boxes sit in Dispatch’s St. Laurent store, waiting to be filled with coffee for delivery. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

"Pre-COVID, about 80 per cent revenue was coming from our three stores and a small wholesale business and 20 per cent was e-commerce," Durcak said.

"We've kind of flipped that around now."

The long term plan was to flip that around and COVID-19 allowed the business to do it sooner. That success, though, is bittersweet.

"It's definitely created opportunity, is how I can frame it. But it's tough to see so many of my friends in small business struggling right now," Durcak said.

"It's tough to be in such a fortunate position, but we are very grateful."

About the Author

Sarah Leavitt

Journalist

Sarah Leavitt is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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