Café Joe retains its charm under new ownership

We spoke to Morgan Lee Williams about how not to mess with a St-Henri staple.

Café Joe Montreal
Morgan Lee Williams and Jacob Roberts at Café Joe in Montreal. Photo by J.P. Karwacki

Café Joe is one of a handful of businesses on a mostly residential stretch of St-Antoine. The staff are friendly and engaging, and you can usually overhear an interesting conversation going on between some of the patrons. The food is solid: well-executed breakfast food and diner staples. It’s very easy to develop a regular order; for me, it’s the breakfast poutine with an extra egg. Comforting and consistent.

There is a new artist featured on the walls every month, but it never changes the feeling of the décor. Similarly, Café Joe has recently changed hands, and the new owners have made sure not to fundamentally change the feel of the place. In the middle of the last heat wave I met one of the new owners, Morgan Lee Williams, to talk about taking over an established business and what it means to the community.

Simon Wake:So Café Joe has been an institution in this neighbourhood for a while. How and why did you decide to take it over?

Morgan Lee Williams:Well, I had been working there for a while, about a year before I bought it. There was an awesome community there, I loved the people I worked with and the people that come in here are just incredible humans. It fosters this incredible community that’s really important to the neighbourhood. When everybody heard that it was going to be sold, the biggest fear was that it was going to change. It had been the same for 15 years, and some people have been going since it opened. Everyone gets along and there’s so much interesting conversation always happening there. When (the previous owner Eric Hanson) was selling it, people would walk in and they didn’t really know what the place was all about. They were going to change it and make it into a more profitable café. But that’s not what Café Joe is all about; Café Joe is about the people that are there, and good quality, accessible food for the community. We don’t charge you for the buzz words.

SW:No avocado toast?

MW: We don’t have avocados. Screw that! Those things go bad so fast. Anyway, nobody in the community could see it go and neither could we. So we made an arrangement to buy it.

SW:Can you tell me about the owner you bought it from?

MW:Yeah, Eric Hanson owned the restaurant before Jake (Roberts) and I bought it. He had bought it off a lady named Melony. Melony had created this cool community. Eric had worked there before and then bought it from her when he had a kid. And he kept building up the rapport with the staff and the community.

SW:Is he still involved in Café Joe’s in any way?

MW:Sometimes he comes in for breakfast.

SW:For free?

MW:Nope (laughter). Well, sometimes we throw him a free breakfast. He sold it to us favorably because he knew we were going to just let it change naturally instead of whitewashing the place and getting sleek new cups or whatever.

SW: Didn’t you tell me you got new cups?

MW:Yeah, actually (laughter). We got new compostable cups, but they’re not sleek. We have been making positive changes like that, just trying to make it more local and more communal than it already was. We’ve been working with Compost Montreal and using all compostable take-out products. We get most of our vegetables from the Atwater Market and everything is by foot or bike. We had to get all our meat from these two butchers in Verdun; it’s all local, hormone free, grass-fed and all that stuff.

SW: What else, besides shopping locally, have you done to involve the community?

MW: Lots. For one thing we’ve been trying to facilitate pop-up shops and other ways to use this space at night. We have a lot of people from the Atwater Market and chefs who eat here regularly, and they had been asking about using the space after Café Joe closes at 4. So recently, we did our first pop-up shop. We had a maritime kitchen party night, where a couple of local chefs worked together to set up a full seven-course menu. Me and Jake worked as servers for the night. We like to be involved.

SW: Are these nights very profitable for you?

MW: I wouldn’t say that they’re a cash cow for us by any means. We mostly charge based on the amount of gas they use. We’re not really doing any of this to become millionaires.

SW: Do you pay yourself?

MW: Right now, we’re just focusing on paying off our loans and making sure our staff all get a decent wage. When we work we pay ourselves out of the tips if there’s enough. We eat at the restaurant and just live a life of non-excessiveness.  Money’s not as important as everyone makes it out to be.

SW: Did you learn anything about business before taking over this business?

MW: I studied archaeology, and Jake studied math, so not really. My friend loaned me a text book on small businesses in Quebec. I read the first chapter while signing the stuff to buy the restaurant.

SW:So, one chapter of a business text book between the two of you?

MW:Yeah. And Eric was really helpful when we first took over. He basically taught us everything we needed to know. He’s still our go-to guy when we need advice; he checks up on us regularly.

SW:Do you do any other community events?

MW:We do something every month called Coffee Break and it’s run by an organization called Vent Over Tea, where volunteers who are trained in active listening will sit down with you and let you literally just vent, while drinking tea, about whatever you want to with someone who’s willing to listen. We provide cookies, tea and coffee. They usually happen on the second or third Wednesday of every month.

SW:Any good stories about a regular?

MW: One regular, kind of unknowingly, convinced me to buy the place. I was debating it for a while, and it seemed like it might be too much responsibility for me. But one day this regular came in, I guess she was having a rough day, and I gave her lunch as usual and she just looked at me and said, “This place is so special. You really brighten my day by just being you. Every time I come in here it makes me feel better.” And I was like, damn, that’s important. Just by being in this communal space she felt comfortable. It really made me realize what this space is. You share a meal with someone and you trust them forever.

SW:What’s her order?

MW: She gets a grilled cheese on pumpernickel, by itself.

SW: Every day?

MW: Yeah, almost every day. 

Café Joe

3068 St-Antoine W.

(514) 906-1233

Facebook page

For more coverage of the Montreal food scene, please visit our Food & Drink section.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.

Additionally, to vote for your favourite Montreal people and things in the Best of MTL readers poll, click here.