Sergio Da Silva Turbo Haüs

Sergio Da Silva from Turbo Haüs is the kind of small business owner Montreal needs more of

Running a music venue and café with band lodging upstairs has attracted a lot of clientele and goodwill — as well as tiresome noise complaints and systemic disrespect.

Sergio Da Silva can’t catch a break. The beloved, curmudgeonly entrepreneur and owner of Quartier Latin show and cocktail bar Turbo Haüs, as well as its recently added le Café Big Trouble, discovered on March 1 that he had some unwelcome new competition.

A temporary, White Claw-branded bar and terrasse had been installed directly in front of Turbo Haüs’s entrance. It was part of the city’s Nuit Blanche festivities, that magical winter night when everything stays open late and citizens are encouraged to shake off their seasonal affective disorder by going out and patronizing their favourite haunts — exactly the kind of secular holiday dreamt up by merchants’ associations and boards of trade, both municipal and metropolitan.

“We made less than half what we would have made had it been any other weekend,” said Da Silva. “Nuit Blanche cost us money, and over three nights no less.”

I called around to try to see if anyone would take responsibility, and naturally enough, everyone passed the buck. It was no different for Sergio, who also tried to find out why, on a street that has too many vacant storefronts, the temporary bar and terrasse had to go directly in front of his businesses. No one seemed to know, no two people had identical or even similar answers, but everyone swore they’d come up with a solution and that it wouldn’t happen again.

“It was like being backstage at a concert,” said Da Silva in an interview with Cult MTL. Some temporary signage was put up to point out that there was in fact a perfectly good bar and a café behind the temporary wooden walls, power cables, coolers, ski and snowboard paraphernalia, and other various detritus that cut off viable small businesses from what might have been their customers.

That Turbo Haüs survived the pandemic on Lower St-Denis borders on the miraculous. A great many restaurants, cafés, clubs and bars — all viable businesses with loyal customers — did not. Turbo Haüs was a recent addition to the strip, having expanded to new digs after a few years punking out above Saint-Henri hotspot Loic. While the pandemic was brutal on just about everyone in the hospitality sector, Turbo Haüs was ripped off several times, a particularly tough loss so early in the game. 

As the public gave the proverbial inch on public health measures, government took the proverbial mile cracking down on fun wherever they could. I say this as an enthusiastic supporter of pandemic mitigation strategies, of both the pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical variety: Mon’onc Frank Lego massively overstepped his authority as premier during COVID-19. It was the inevitable ‘equal and opposite reaction’ to the unmitigated dumpster fire of a disaster that occurred at the privatized long-term and elder care facilities early on in the pandemic. The initial foot-dragging, finger-pointing and buck-passing was followed by curfews and, in case you forgot, a ban on dancing in bars.

Sergio occupied at least some of his time pointing out the obviously ineffective so-called public health measures on social media. Unlike yours truly, who lost part of 2020 and 2021 to endless pandemic-related doom-scrolling, Da Silva leveraged the power of community that helped Turbo Haüs expand in the first place. A move to merchandise helped keep the operation afloat right through the worst of the pandemic, as loyal patrons snapped up Turbo Haüs branded t-shirts, sweats and mosh shorts. It was more than a gimmick — people genuinely wanted to see the business survive.

I don’t know if he’s sat down to write out his business philosophy, but if I had to guess, it would begin and end with something like ‘be the change you want to see in others, treat people like you would like to be treated and remember it’s really not just about the money.’ These are not the principles that would get Sergio a job lecturing at any of the city’s schools of business, but it sure as hell has allowed his tiny empire to thrive in adverse conditions. 

Turbo Haüs Sergio Da Silva

Da Silva is the kind of small business owner the city needs more of — many more of. When politicians and urban planners talk about the necessity of small business owners who are more committed to their neighbourhood and community than even their own bottom line, it’s people like Sergio they’re imagining. He’s not alone, but I worry greedy landlords and predatory renovicters have squeezed out a lot of the old stock of community-first small business owners in this city. The long list of age-old businesses that have gone under in this city in recent years confirms my suspicions. It’s not just the pandemic — the trend of Montrealers being priced out of their own city long predates COVID.

That’s what makes the whole Nuit Blanche thing so frustrating. You’d figure all the glad-handers and professional schmooze artists who talk a good game about building viable urban neighbourhoods in this city would be pulling out all the stops to make sure Da Silva’s businesses didn’t have to fight to survive.

Equally frustrating are the noise complaints from the people who pay extra to live in a clearly defined entertainment district yet apparently object to the sounds of people being entertained. If you’ve heard of Sergio, it’s probably in this context: he hasn’t kept quiet about the noise complaints he’s received, and how silly and hypocritical it is for people and politicians alike to valorize and venerate the nightlife while simultaneously expecting a show bar to keep it down after 11 p.m. And let’s not kid ourselves: the amount of scratch carried by a given venue’s clientele seems to influence how disturbing the noise really is. People have been complaining about the incessant cacophonous Eurotrash drone of the Grand Prix for decades and it’s all fallen on deaf ears.

Even though the complaints are ludicrous, this didn’t stop Da Silva from trying to address the problem in the most proactive way imaginable. How many other bars in this city have bought the apartments above to act as a sound barrier? 

If that wasn’t enough, he took it a step further by offering the furnished apartments to bands traveling through the city in need of accommodation, irrespective of where they might be playing. And if all that weren’t enough, he offers the apartments to bands pro bono. He makes his sound barrier apartments free to bands in need for the same reason he doesn’t list them on Airbnb.

Sergio Da Silva is not going to be a part of the problem. ■

For more on Turbo Haüs, please visit their website.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Cult MTL.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.