Montreal’s problems reflected in Massimo Lecas’ view from Buonanotte’s head table
As a founding partner in Buonanotte on St. Laurent, one of Montreal’s best-known restaurants, Massimo Lecas is passionate about his business and his city. In conversation this week covering the challenges he faces as a restaurateur and his frustrations with Montreal’s dysfunctional layers of governance, his plight is emblematic of what ails Montreal’s retail, food and entertainment industries.
First he rightly assails the fiefdoms of borough governments that create inconsistent rules and regulations along Montreal’s major arteries. He points out that if you drive St. Laurent from Chinatown to the Metropolitan Expressway, you will cross the territories of four municipal governments. Each local council has its own vision and the ability of merchants to build their businesses under a varying plethora of restrictions, major roadwork interruptions and noise restrictions makes it impossible to plan and prosper.
Worse yet, local merchant associations who wish to cooperate across borough boundaries are stymied in their planning by the impossibility of coordination under this inconsistency. His solution? The City of Montreal needs to take back control of Montreal’s major arteries that traverse the city and are its face to the world, like St. Laurent, St. Denis, Mount Royal, Park Avenue, Sherbrooke and St. Catherine. Merchants need a single set of comprehensive and understandable rules under which they can operate and promote their businesses. He has a concise message for Plateau mayor, Luc Ferrandez, to stop taking his borough hostage and doing whatever he wants to the limits of what is permissible under his mandate, to the detriment of the merchants who bring economic activity to the town. He singles out parking, traffic diversion initiatives such as one-way streets, and operating hours coupled with severe capacity restrictions as three main impediments to the area’s commercial sustainability. If there was ever a plea to streamline Montreal’s government, this is it. Is it normal that a critical entertainment artery like St. Laurent could not get its Christmas lights installed? Lecas is convinced that Mayor Coderre was instrumental in getting that request through the bureaucracy, and the St. Laurent Merchants Association needs more support of that sort.
Lecas made some very interesting observations about Montreal’s restaurant industry and the changes over the past decade. He says that it is too simplistic to say that Montreal has too many restaurants – larger locales have closed, notably in his area, so 150-seat restaurants have been replaced by smaller, 40-seat restaurants (or smaller) scattered across the city. Overall, the number of “seats” remains unchanged. These compact restaurants cannot accommodate large groups of diners so the available choice for celebrations and parties is reduced, notably at the time of Montreal’s comedy and jazz festivals and Formula 1 week. The economics are not the same for these niche establishments and it is very hard for them to sustain profitability during the September to April period when far fewer tourists come to Montreal.
Lecas says that his proximity to the McGill community of better-off expatriate students gives him a loyal customer base that will enjoy his restaurant throughout the school year while they are in the city, and he is grateful for their patronage. That customer base, coupled with Buonanotte’s status as a destination restaurant during the spring and summer high seasons allows him to sustain his business model. It is not a model available to most restaurants, however, and he laments the decline in disposable income in Montreal over the past 20 years. He visits Toronto on a regular basis and he immediately feels the difference, not only in economic might but in the vitality of the restaurant and entertainment industries. He notes that Montreal’s film festival was killed by Toronto’s TIFF – where are the new festivals in Montreal to promote year-round international activity? If Montreal was ever to lose the F1 race, or our jazz and comedy festivals declined, what other world-class event do we have ready to supplement them?
His most damning comment is his most telling-that Montreal’s governments are punishing success. When 18 police officers enter his establishment one evening during F1 week and start counting heads and checking IDs, he takes it as a personalized attack and he knows from discussion with other restaurant entrepreneurs that this is not an isolated incident. Others have faced, and will face, similar harassment. Yes, the law must be enforced, but the law was not designed to be applied in a pejorative and coercive manner. Mr. Mayor, are you listening? The plight of entrepreneurs like Massimo will mirror the fate of our city.