What It's Like To Own A Restaurant In Montreal
Many Montrealers dream about having their own businesses. A very common business venture among local entrepreneurs is diving into our city's restaurant industry.
It's important to carefully study the ins and outs of this fascinating domain before making any serious commitments. That's why I got in touch with Massimo Lecas for an interview. He's been in the restaurant business for over 20 years and knows it like the back of his hand.
What are the businesses you run at the moment?
How did you get into restaurant business?
I was 27 years old, having fun, chasing girls… the models were in New York and Paris. So we were going everywhere they were going, haha. After hanging out with the “elite” and seeing all the cool spots outside of Montreal, we got inspired.
You may or may not know that back in 1991, there was nothing going on in Montreal restaurant scene. That’s when we got into the business and that’s when Buonanotte was born.
Quebec restaurant regulations are notorious for making people working in the nightlife and service industries hard. For instance, Globe has been recently closed and Buonanotte got suspended. What happened exactly and how can the government help restaurant owners instead of making things harder for them?
Let’s not forget, Globe was open for 22 years. Most restaurants are open for 1.5 years and we managed to stay open for 22 years. We had amazing chefs there.
Now, what happened is, the law of the alcohol permit says that you must order something to eat when drinking. They (Quebec restaurant regulation representatives) would show up to the bar when the place was full and they would order two Heinekens. And the girl would give them two Heinekens and they would leave the restaurant and say, “You just served me alcohol without food. Where’s the food?” They didn’t understand what the concept of “supper club” was. You have your meal and your dessert followed by a party. And they didn’t like it. Call it jealousy, call it whatever you want to call it. It’s an unfortunate story.
A policeman is there to protect and to serve, but we all know he's there to give tickets, right? The same way, La Régie des Alcools is there to punish. And a lot of people end up losing their jobs [as a consequence]…
But don’t get me wrong, restaurants should be governed and controlled: you cannot serve alcohol to minors, you can’t sell drugs, you can’t be overcapacity and put clients in danger…
But, you know, when a cop hides behind the trees and gives tickets? La Régie des Alcools often “hides behind the trees” and waits to give us tickets. And in the case of Buonanotte today, they shut us down [for 40 days]. Who’s winning when Buonanotte is closed for 40 days? [They] put a bunch of people on unemployment, they don’t collect taxes anymore, what do you gain? Nothing.
But [the government is trying to] refurbish alcohol laws from A to Z right now. [Let’s say] if you’re overcapacity by 25 people, [you receive a] $5000 fine. If you do that, [you won’t have to deal with] judges, suspension, lawyers… I think that’s what they’re working on, because I follow it closely. Hopefully, it’ll come sooner than later.
What is the most challenging thing about owning a restaurant in Montreal?
In Montreal, the biggest challenge is that we have a lot of restaurants, there’s a lot of competition and Montreal crowd always wants to be at “the new hot spot”… But, in two years from now, will Jatoba still be Jatoba, will Soubois still be Soubois? Or someone new will come and open something and all the kids will go to the new place? [In addition], we don’t have that big of a population in Montreal, to keep the restaurants busy all the time.
We also have a restaurant in Toronto and, wow, there are so many people in that city! You can tell there’s a lot more money there, the reservations keep coming in… [In Montreal], it’s really hard to do.
A lot of people get discouraged about opening a restaurant in Montreal given our high restaurant concentration per capita. That doesn’t seem to stop you, what’s your secret?
Call it the Peter Pan complex or simply enthusiasm that we have… every time we travel, we have a natural instinct to say, “We should bring this back home!”
Like Jellyfish, for example. It’s born out of a restaurant in Barcelona. It also incorporates a bit of Catch Restaurant from New York City. We just have so much fun in these places abroad, that we end up having a strong desire to bring these concepts back home. We want to make our city better!
Today, I’m at Fiorellino and all I hear is, “Wow, very New York, very Brooklyn!” Yeah, no kidding, that’s what we did. We hung out in Brooklyn, brought it back home and I’m glad people recognize that influence.
Restaurant business is a highly competitive environment. How do you deal with competition?
Competition has changed over the years, like everything else in life. 24 years ago we would play Sadé at an Italian restaurant and it was considered risqué. There’s an evolution - today, the competition is very well educated.
What makes us different? We pay attention to everything from food to music, decor, cocktail list, uniforms etc. We have televisions in our bathrooms and we make sure it’s on the right channel. We control every single little thing.
Innovation is key to staying competitive in this business. But spaghetti and tomato sauce still has to taste like your grandma's spaghetti and tomato sauce.
What’s the main reason for Buonanotte’s relevance for over 20 years?
I get this question a lot. Everyone is amazed that we’re still busy after 20 years! Especially that we’re not Moishe’s or Toqué or Ferreira… Buonanotte is a trendy supper club. It’s hard to stay busy in this area of business.
What keeps us relevant? We never look at our neighbours. We just focus on ourselves. People ask me all the time, “Did you go to Richmond? Did you go to Grinder? Did you go to Flyjin? Did you go to Joe Beef?” The answer is “no.“ When I want to get inspired or when I want to see things, I get on a plane and I travel. I bring inspiration from abroad.
What’s the most rewarding part about owning a restaurant?
You know, that little excitement when you have some people at your house and you fancy up the table, check your oven to see if everything is coming out right as you're preparing drinks… At my restaurants, I’m hosting people every day.
People come to your place and spend money, you should never take that for granted. I’m thankful for everything and I always do my best to make their night memorable. You have to love it. I just really love what I do. When people let loose and enjoy themselves at my restaurant - that’s the best reward.
Do you have a favourite restaurant from the ones that you currently own?
It would have to be Buonanotte. I was in there today, we’re closed, we have our suspension… and, I was like: “My baby! Why did they do this to you?” But we’re coming up with really exciting ideas for the grand opening.
What word of advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking into opening their own restaurant?
Concentrate on what you have in your four walls. If you want to get inspired - travelling is the best way! Don’t be lazy, go to Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans… In my twenties, my partners and I would get in a car drive down to New York just to see what’s happening there.