WESTMOUNT – Some patrons called it the Cheers of Westmount.
On any given day, they can walk into Cavallaro on Sherbrooke Street in the Victoria Village and see both the young and the old tucking away at plates of homemade ham sandwiches, creamy tomato pastas and spicy, garlic-roasted focaccias.
Owner Tony Russo knew most of his customers by name.
“If it was the day after a hockey game, people would come, have a coffee and talk to me about the game,” he said.
“It was familiar. It really was like Cheers.”
Now, after 17 years as the owner of the Westmount franchise, Russo is closing the doors of his popular eatery.
“I waited until after the Jewish holidays because I wanted to serve my clients,” he said.
“But I was working 70-80 hours a week, getting up at the crack of dawn, working all the time and I was barely making any money. It was a struggle.”
Russo said high rents coupled with skyrocketing corporate taxes and expensive franchise fees led to the decline of his business.
“It’s been two, three years now where it’s been really tough. I was working so much and I’m not 20-years-old anymore. I’m 53 and I was so tired all the time,” Russo told Global News.
“When you are a small family business and you don’t have deep pockets, it’s hard. It just didn’t make sense anymore.”
Cavallaro is the latest in a string of small, family-run businesses to close in the Victoria Village neighbourhood in recent years.
Large real estate companies like Cromwell Management Inc. have moved into the area, bought up prime real estate and raised rents, making it difficult for small businesses to pay up.
Large companies like Lululemon, Starbucks, Ugg, and Roots have set up shop, leaving some to insist the charm of the village is slowly being chipped away.
“We have seen a lot of places come and go over the years,” said Tom Forestell.
His family has run Westmount Stationary at the corner of Sherbrooke and Prince Albert streets for 40 years.
“The rents keep going up and the business taxes keep going up and so do wages. It’s really hard for these mom-and-pop businesses,” Forestell said.
“It hurts to see something like Cavallaro close because that’s part of the charm of the area.”
As for Russo, he said his six full and part-time employees have already found other jobs.
“A lot of people have been messaging me, getting in touch,” he told Global News.
“It’s a sad story because I dragged it on for so long because my customers were my friends. But I was tired.”
Russo hopes to open again in a different form.
He plans on working from his West Island home over the next few months, taking orders on Facebook for his popular homemade lasagnes, meatballs and pastas.
In the spring, he told Global News he’d like to open a small, 600-square foot location on Victoria Avenue to sell ready-made meals.
“I’ll set up a menu this winter and then hopefully I will go back in the spring just selling my own food,” he said.
“I miss my clients.”