Montreal terrasses city summer

Photo by Raphaël Thibodeau

Has the city’s summer strategy helped or hurt Montreal businesses?

Bending to blowhard merchants and mounting poorly advertised pop-ups hasn’t been a good look.

In the midst of an unprecedented economic slump for bars and restaurants, the city of Montreal has launched a progressive and innovative plan to help businesses all over the city and to draw citizens to the places where they normally gather in large numbers in the summer — downtown, the Quartier des Spectacles, Chinatown, Old Montreal, the Village — but is it working? A feature editorial.

On July 30, David McMillan of Joe Beef made a defiant stand against the Projet Montreal government’s efforts to assist the bar and restaurant industry in the city. “Shutting down our streets, removing all our parking and getting clowns to perform isn’t COVID economic relief,” McMillan exclaimed, while simultaneously pushing to oust Mayor Valérie Plante. As a result of the pushback, the municipal government withdrew their plans to create pedestrian-only traffic on Notre-Dame and expand terrasses in the neighbourhood.

What’s most confusing about McMillan and other merchants’ response to these measures is that it seems to run directly counter to what could be considered the most sensible response to fostering business in the food and bar service industry — a sector that already poses substantial risks for patrons by its very nature. As more studies show that indoor spaces with poor ventilation increase the chances of respiratory transmission, one would presume that exterior seating would be the safest way for these businesses (the only ones where clients can go mask-free indoors) to continue operating. Add to this the requirement that these establishments have been forced to reduce seating capacity to 50 per cent or less, and you would also think that a free permit to increase the number of seats would offer a sizeable benefit to these businesses working with razor-thin, if not negative, operating margins during the lockdown.

Saving Montreal businesses

Indeed, street closures and free roadside terrasse permits have been very successful in many city sectors so far, with multiple restaurateurs responding very favourably to the Mayor’s office initiatives as having been crucial in sustaining their businesses.

Tania Raymond of le Dépanneur Café in Mile End is very enthusiastic about the measures taken by the city and by the Mile End city council.“We battled for three months to get terrasses and we saw the benefits right away,” she says, noting that the community is striving to recreate a kind of neighbourhood cultural hub similar to Church Street in Burlington, Vermont.

In Verdun and the Village, street closures and increased pedestrian accessibility have had a noticeably positive effect on local businesses. Though revenues are generally lower than previous summers, vibrant outdoor spaces have managed to draw out local residents from quarantine and most patios are bustling with customers.

After the Legault administration began targeting bars as probable hotspots for COVID transmission in late July, outside seating has helped reacquire customers who had retreated from riskier indoor spaces.

“Extended patio seating saved my business. It’s that simple,” stated Philippe Haman of the Distillerie bar group. (Distillerie No. 1 in Quartier Latin remains temporarily closed, however.)

A tale of two cities

The reason for some restaurateurs’ dissatisfaction is because these measures have been attempted as a one-size-fits-all panacea. In fact, the post-COVID economic landscape has shown that Montreal is two distinct cities co-existing under one namesake, but in constant competition with each other. With the change in people’s comfort in dining-out and the evisceration of tourist revenues, it’s clear that the boroughs are winning.

Prospects for the downtown quarter continue to look bleak. Most offices still sit empty (or at a greatly reduced capacity) as employees work from home, and many businesses have extended their work-from-home policies to January 2021.

Closing roads for pedestrians and proliferating terrasses makes little difference in downtown and adjacent sectors that are more destinations than residential hubs. The issue is made worse with the problem of continuing heavy roadwork (a hangover from the Coderre era) and widespread construction on bicycle paths carving up the remaining transit spaces — an initiative pushed by Plante’s Projet Montreal party.

“It’s crazy how bad the parking situation is, and when you have parking you have to pay and it’s not cheap,” opined Miguel Aguilar, co-owner of PintxoTapas Bar in Quartier des Spectacles. “Down on Clarke, at least 40 parking spaces were forbidden, and it was saying ‘Aqueduc’… but there was nothing. In a situation where we want people to come downtown and parking is the number one problem, and they’re doing that… it was completely occurrent.”

For Aguilar, the $400K plans for Quartier des Spectacles to have surprise shows by local artists misses the mark. “I’m not at all against artists in Quebec getting help, and it’s a good idea to have shows in Quartier des Spectacles, but we don’t need that to attract people to downtown. We need to give them access without having to pay or walk 10 blocks to find a parking spot. Instead of investing money there, why not just give free parking to people who want to come downtown from 5 to 9 every day?”

Shows must go on

shows Montreal businesses downtown Quartier des Spectacles

The main concern appears to be these surprise performances have not been well-organized or promoted, and as such don’t offer enough benefit to justify further removing access to the downtown area for residents in outer boroughs and suburbs that normally patronize these establishments. The problem for these establishments isn’t a lack of outdoor seating — many already have extensive terrasse spaces that are sitting empty right now. Without proper planning and advertising for street performances, the city’s investment burns more money than it brings to businesses.

“These performances seem to be a bit scattershot,” says Sebastien Cadieux of Burger Bar on Crescent Street. “If they were scheduled and that schedule was made available, people may come out to see it, but as it is now it’s a strange gamble on whether or not you will see one of these things and odds are pretty bad that you will.”

To be fair, the municipal government is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Some kind of event is required to draw people out of their neighbourhoods and toward downtown, but large outdoor gatherings likewise increase the chance of spreading the virus. Montreal’s position as one of the world epicentres for COVID cases earlier this year has already discouraged the usual influx of suburban residents and has contributed to the increase in urbanites flocking away from the city to private chalets and rural areas of Quebec. Another outbreak caused by a large gathering would certainly have severe consequences for the medical and economic health of Montrealers’ at large.

Keep on truckin’?

The burgeoning food truck industry in Montreal could help balance the need for attraction while keeping safety a top priority, but on this issue the city has again made no clear attempt to capitalize on this.

According to Stefan Jacob, the VP of the Quebec Food Truck Association, “a food truck is made by design for a pandemic.” 

“We don’t serve the customer directly, we’re in a contained environment where we sanitize everything. [The city] should have tried it, they should take advantage of this situation where most restaurants are closed, letting us go where the population is, to see if that would work, to see if it would create that buzz other cities have with their food trucks.”

As far back as March, when restaurants and bars had closed, these same food trucks were serving residents and military alike at the CHSLD’s on private contracts. But when the QFTA pushed to allow food trucks to operate when only take-out was permitted, there was silence from the government. Even now that they have restarted, the city has continued their previous practices of offering very limited spots for the trucks, and keeping them away from prime locations. The original reason for this was to avoid stepping on brick-and-mortar restaurants, but many downtown eateries remain shuttered, so it’s unclear why the city is continuing this practice to the detriment of both industries.

“Food trucks, they attract people. It just sounds like a party when there’s more than one. Food trucks do not compete with sit-down restaurants, it’s not the same clientele. We bring foot traffic to an area,” Jacob points out.

At least some downtown restaurateurs agree.

“For me it would be competition, but at this stage what I want is for people to come. If more people come, then they’re going to start looking for restaurants near food trucks,” Aguilar concurs.

A hard place

The problem as it stands is that for elderly customers on the island worried for their safety in public transportation, and for suburbanites that need to drive to get to the city centre, there is a perception that downtown parking is a nightmare, and an expensive one at that. Unadvertised, impromptu shows are simply not a sufficient draw to overcome that concern. The indignation felt by Joe Beef and their peers isn’t actually a rejection of safe outdoor spaces, it’s disbelief that the city is putting little effort into offsetting the consequences of their civic construction, and equally little effort into curating some kind of spectacle that would bring revenues to ailing Montreal businesses.

In writing this article, I reached out to the mayor’s office for comment. I am still waiting for a response, as are these businesses. As summer comes to an end and we risk a second wave of COVID infections, it remains unclear whether there will be an answer before terrasse season ends. ■

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