What a relief to have your head above water!
After 24 months of handling the daily operations of our first small restaurant, I had the distinct feeling my head was finally above water. The feeling that I was “saved from the flood,” as my dear mom would have said if she were still here.
Like her, I was a hard worker and courageous. I accepted my lot as a breadwinner without complaint. And I loved to please my customers, always ready to surprise them with a new breakfast plate. I loved my job, I loved the people around me and yet, under the bleached whites of the trade, the murmur of new ideas became increasingly louder as they bubbled their way up to the surface of my restless mind.
I had acquired this tiny first restaurant with one thing in mind: survival – to feed my kids and pay the bills. And then, as naturally as a chick grows into a hen, my mind began to envisage an actual future for my offspring. A future where the restaurant would be a means to build something that would fulfill more than our basic needs. Tethered to the hot grill, I expertly executed each order while my frontal lobe continued to strategize, calculate and plan.
I knew that there were still a thousand things to master before going any further. And yet, one afternoon, staring at the beautiful carrot cake that I had placed on the counter under its dome, I empathized with it. We felt the same thing: held captive in a transparent prison. I was locked in a future that was too small to satisfy my ambitions.
It was high time for a new miracle. And when you beseech the sky, as my mom would say, the angels answer the call.
- “Our restaurant is too small, I know. So? We can’t really pick up and start somewhere else.”
- “Mom, we can go elsewhere!” answered my oldest daughter. “Us kids will stay here and you can go open a second restaurant with Marie (my first son’s girlfriend) who is due in a month. By the time the baby arrives, you will have found the perfect location, bigger than the first one.”
- “Yes, but…”
- “Don’t worry, mom. We will continue to serve the exact same breakfasts,” insisted my daughter.
- “We’ll coordinate and keep the same soup and same lunch special at both restaurants,” added the youngest encouragingly.
The kids worked harder than ever, each one likely dreaming of owning their own establishment one day. I started to leave a little earlier each day, just after the lunch service, to crisscross the city in search of a location that would lift our destiny a little higher.
On the third Thursday in October 1990, a young hotshot sat down at the counter, after the lunch rush. He downed two Diet Cokes in a row and then asked to speak with the boss.
He had a “diner” to sell on a major commercial artery in the suburbs in Montreal North, opposite the municipality’s biggest office building. The greenhorn stared at me while I, with both hands submerged in a cold water pot, rubbed the yellow peas together for tomorrow’s soup.
He described a large counter with nine stools and some 50 seats in the dining room, and then enumerated all the appliances, furniture and dishes it was equipped with. He’d be willing to part with it for a mere $60,000.
I almost knocked over the pot of peas when I heard the big talker’s price.
And he went even further, exclaiming that $60,000 to do business on the famous St-Martin Blvd. in Laval was a real steal, my dear Madame!
I knew that the location was ideal for us and the size of the restaurant would allow us to serve 3-4 times more customers than our current operation, but short of a miracle, our small savings would not be enough.
The seller insisted. He had heard about our reputation and he thought we were the best buyers for his business.
Suddenly Martine, a loyal denizen of the counter, piped up and suggested we take a spin and have a look at the restaurant.
- “We can all go in her big van,” suggested my daughter. “And Martine will be happy to help out,” she continued.
Three hours later, siting at the counter of this large Laval diner, I offered the owner half of the amount asked for. All our savings and loose change forgotten at the back of drawers would serve as the down payment, with 10 monthly installments starting three months after the signing of the contract to make up the full amount. Think about it, Sir, you can take it or leave it.
The angels above must have leapt into action. And with hindsight, I realize that things always happened this way. I always wanted to do more, and I always succeeded. As if each time, a miracle happened. As if a whole set of circumstances fell into place each time to help me bring my umpteenth project to life.
When Martine stopped her van in the huge parking lot of the Laval diner, she was eager to inform us that our future new restaurant was only a short distance from the first restaurant. At that moment, my heart surged with excitement. These 20 quick kilometres instantly reassured me. The large façade entirely in glass beckoned me to enter.
And, followed by a swooning herd of gazelles, we went through every square foot of the place, with my Gigi noting down each piece of equipment, dish and pot in her lined notebook. Truth be told, there wasn’t much, apart from the table and chairs that were in good condition and a cavernous 9-foot ceiling basement with a practically new standard freezer.
While we were exploring, Martine headed out to do some fact finding at businesses in the plaza where the diner was located. It turns out it was open every other day, during irregular hours, and offered standard fare. It rarely had customers, with one waitress working, who was always changing. No one could understand how the diner remained in business.
Standing behind his lime-green Formica counter, the seller began by exclaiming a “NO” as mighty as MT. EVEREST. Seeing my impassive expression, he lowered his voice only slightly and came back with $50,000. Remaining silent with my eyes fixed on his fingers wriggling like earthworms in a glass jar, a feeble $40,000 then emerged from his trembling lips.
Did the progressive local government, the busy commercial boulevard and ideal location really justify all that money? Because there wasn’t anything else of value in the establishment itself.
Not wanting to insult the young man, I invited him to reconsider my offer, which was of course conditional on the plaza’s owner agreeing to write up a new lease that suited us.
As we were getting ready to leave, the man, weary from fighting with himself, looked at me straight in the eye and at last let out a big YES for everyone to hear.
Pssst: The gazelles skipped for joy, my daughter gave Martine a big hug and I thanked all the benevolent powers in the Universe, who, once again, helped me take a step closer to our future!