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April 23, 2021

From diner cook to Founding President

I am garrulous by nature, so journalists love to interview me. It was true in the past and still true today, though I may have a lot fewer things to say of importance. Let’s go back to the start of our franchises; to the time when I began my transformation from diner cook to FOUNDING PRESIDENT…

- “How do you feel, Mme Cora, when you see your own name on 30 Cora restaurant signs?” asked the nice interviewer on the show Capital Action in 1998.

I felt like answering that I had the same disconnected feeling every time as the day I read on an official document the imposing title of “Founding President” printed underneath my name for the first time. I felt distant, as if I had already shrivelled up and was sitting on a tall, old board of directors chair whose legs would be planted a thousand miles away from my custard pot.

- “This distance is an integral part of progress” whispered a beautiful angel in my ear. Instead I replied:

- “Well, Miss Chalifoux, you can’t be everywhere all at once unfortunately. You can’t do everything yourself. The Cora of the sign is no longer a real person flipping pancakes in a restaurant kitchen. She has become an idea, a concept. Like a beacon in the morning fog for hungry bellies.”

And I’d add how proud I am of where this little kernel of an idea, planted in my head by Providence, has taken us. I can now savour the experience of having engendered these other entities, not identical to the original child, but resembling it like two drops of water.

Being in business is as painful and exhilarating as motherhood. It’s a kind of endless public birthing that takes all your heart and soul, all your strength and the same maternal determination to ensure one’s offspring grow up strong and healthy.

- “But of course, Ms. Chalifoux, the bigger the company gets, the more I tend to feel overwhelmed. Fortunately, I am surrounded by experienced collaborators to whom I am free to delegate. With each day, I realize that I don't have to have all the skills anymore, especially since reading Henry Ford’s instructive biography for support. In the end, it’s the top title that is right: my role is to preside over the Company, to embody its values, to represent it, to explain it to others; to ensure that it lacks nothing and to enrich it as often as possible with wonderful ideas.”

- “Well said, Mme Cora.”

- “I no longer handle the spatula or big fork, Ms. Chalifoux, but, like a good conductor, I lead the symphony. I tap the magic wand a few times here and there, and the finale salute is still mine.”

It was fairly easy for me to give up my arsenal of kitchen supplies. And fairly easy to make the final decision, since I was always ready with a big YES. Yes to the next location, yes to this job candidate and yes to hiring even more people at the Head Office. I was very proud to carry the embryonic germ for Cora Breakfast and Lunch in my heart. I trusted my intuition and always waited for it to give me its blessing before acting. I always knew that this little voice inside was the smart chip of the computer sitting between the ears, and that when we listen to it, it becomes the entrepreneur’s unfailing ally.

- “But yes, Ms. Chalifoux, being wrong is a risk you run each time you make a decision. I had to be both courageous and humble. I had to have the courage to eventually make the call and the wisdom to ask for the necessary information to weigh the consequences of our choices.”

And I loved my job as President. Whenever I was unsure about accepting or rejecting a certain project, location or candidate, I always insisted on “sleeping on it” as you say in English. I’d wait for the answer to come to me or for my guardian angel to send me some key information.

In the meantime, I would chat with my colleagues, listen to their comments, draw signs, write a poem, watch a Japanese movie or read an Icelandic crime novel. I knew that an inner tide would always bring me a piece of wise advice. I didn't care how long I waited. “The important thing is to win,” as the great Péladeau said so well at the time.

- “What do you think about the risks, Mme Cora?”

- “When you’re stirring a big pot, more and more foam escapes from the stock. That’s just how it goes.”

We opened the first restaurant with the money left over from the sale of our heavily mortgaged family home. Most of it was used to purchase the old, fully equipped restaurant, with $2,000 going to clean-up, our first order of supplies, some homemade flower-themed aprons and a front sign ($350 to be paid a month after opening). The rest of the necessities we brought with us when we emptied the house: my late mother’s nice round wood table, a few good pots and pans, some utensils, kitchen linen, decorative knick-knacks, an attractive vase for later when we could afford to buy flowers and, most importantly, the framed picture of my father that I put on the wall so that his eyes could see the “cash” going into the old cash register that came with the restaurant.

- “All we had to lose, Ms. Chalifoux, was our enthusiasm and passion for our work. And we never lost that, despite a few crying spells, teenage squabbles and losing my voice a few times due to lengthy negotiations with suppliers.”

- “My story as Founding President is quite simple, Ms. Chalifoux. I drew myself, as Walt Disney used to say, with what I had at hand.”

Just like when Aunt Olivette taught us how to build a house of cards as kids. Each time the wind blew my little building into pieces, I would rebuild my castle one card at a time.

- “When I opened the first small restaurant, I simply wanted to survive, to get us out of poverty and feed my children. I listened to my heart and decided to make people happy.”

I didn’t do it out of self-interest or because I was driven by some strategy, but because I was so desperate for love and personal satisfaction.



Psst: Today, in 2021, I still like the grand-sounding title of FOUNDING PRESIDENT because it acts like an anti-missile shield, protecting me from the blows of boredom, idleness and fear of senility.