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September 25, 2020

An angel taught me the value of ownership

At the end of 1990, our three restaurants had begun to generate a buzz, thanks to our wonderful breakfasts and the shorter opening hours that staff and owners appreciated. The daily lineups just kept growing. It’s not surprising I guess, that we began to notice strange characters who tried to pass themselves off as regular customers while questioning us about how we got started and what our future plans were. Our lips tightly sealed, we ignored them while treating them no differently from our other guests.

And despite our mute response, a little devil helped a certain Madame Camille Labonté (not her real name) penetrate the very heart of our organization.

- “She also wants to ‘do a Cora with us,’” said my daughter a little suspiciously. “Camille Labonté has been a restaurant manager all her life. Our new concept would allow her to finally enjoy life a little.”

The woman was definitely beyond the age of youthful folly or the directness of inexperience. Working double shifts and straight through childhood illnesses, she had raised a crew of kids who were now old enough to help her run a breakfast restaurant.

- “And her electrician husband can repair pretty much anything in a commercial kitchen” my daughter went on, already half-convinced. “She could be a good partner for us.”

- “Mom, you need to meet her. And it would allow us to open a fourth restaurant.”

When the woman sat down in front of me, with her gaunt face, anxious eyes and slightly hunched back, I immediately sensed the hardship that this courageous mother had borne over the years. And it pulled at my heart.

Until we found a fourth location, I invited her to come and work at one of our restaurants so she could familiarize herself with our working methods. It would also allow us to get to know her better.

And yes, two of her daughters could help out serving on the weekend to gain experience ahead of the fourth restaurant’s opening. And yes, the husband could assist in the kitchen preparing crêpe and custard batters.  

In just a few weeks, Madame Labonté, who was thrilled about our future partnership, assumed the lead at our second restaurant, where we had put her so she could get used to the basics of our concept. It also made it easier for our new partners to access our kitchen-prep site, which was located in the basement. The Labonté family worked hard for several months while I spent my time driving up and down commercial streets looking for a suitable location for the next restaurant. 

One happy day I found the perfect spot!

Excited to announce the news to Madame Camille, I arrived at the restaurant early in the morning and invited her to have a coffee.

I had barely shared the great news, when the face of the maternal figure suddenly transmogrified into that of a demon’s.

- “We don’t need you to open a breakfast restaurant. We’ve learned what to do and how to do it,” she shot at me.

- “I was going to tell you this evening that we found a choice location and signed a great lease,” she added as if to provoke me.

When the scamp got up to collect her things, an iron cloud slammed me from above. We had just shown her all our recipes and she was now going to use them as our competitor. How could I be so naive? How could I have made such a huge blunder? The worst ever.

But once all the emotions had washed over me, believe it not, the incident ended up being the most constructive mistake in our history.

It was standard for us to teach cooking staff at each restaurant how to prepare exclusive recipes that I had developed, so we should have expected that one day an ill-intentioned person would try to take advantage of the situation. It was better to have it happen early on than later.

We quickly understood the priceless value of our unique recipes. And almost immediately we set up a production kitchen staffed only with loyal employees who mixed, poured and packaged exclusive products that were then delivered to each restaurant twice a week.

As the number of restaurants grew, the volume of exclusive food items grew in step. The kitchen became a small factory, whose production eventually had to be transferred to large accredited food manufacturers located across the country.

So it seems that an angel can turn into a demon who, in the end, can be beneficent. And I forgave the tricks of Madame Labonté, who gave me pause to really reflect and realize the true value of our recipes, our processes and our unique morning gastronomy concept.



Psst: We continued to open restaurants without giving a second thought to what the Labonté family was up to. After all, as the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770) said so well:

“Listen to the forest that grows rather than the tree that falls.”