David McMillan, co-owner of Montreal’s renowned Joe Beef restaurant, laments that virtually anyone, regardless of experience, can open an eatery in the gastronomical city.
“I can’t decide tomorrow to practise plumbing, to practise amateur electricity,” he muses in an interview with The Canadian Press. “In Montreal you can apply for a restaurant permit and get it immediately – that’s a problem for me.”
McMillan’s view is by no means the consensus in the industry but it reflects part of the debate in Quebec among chefs, restaurant owners, citizens and politicians.
With competition so fierce and profit margins so small – roughly 2.7 per cent on average – the role Quebec’s highly interventionist government should play in one of the province’s most dynamic industries remains a source of contention.
The debate is not new and was rekindled earlier this year when Carlos Ferreira, owner of a well-known eatery, said Montreal should impose quotas in neighbourhoods to limit competition and help struggling legacy restaurants stay in business.
“I don’t believe in the free market anymore,” Ferreira said at the time. “We have to protect the good restaurants.”
Celebrity chef Daniel Vezina said recently the fact so many restaurants close a few months after opening shows there are too many places to eat in Quebec City and Montreal.
“Everyone wants to open a restaurant, to become a chef – that has to change,” Vezina told reporters.
Montreal has one of the highest per-capita ratios in North America with regard to restaurants, and the proliferation of places to eat is worrying local politicians.
The main commercial artery in the borough of Saint-Henri became so popular with restaurateurs that councillors decided to pass a bylaw to create what they called a “better balance” between retail, services and restaurants.
The law bans all new restaurants on Notre-Dame Street – where Joe Beef is located – within 25 metres of an existing one.
McMillan agrees with the bylaw.
If all the commercial spots on a street are filled with restaurants, he says, then there is no foot traffic before 6 p.m., which he believes kills the vitality of the neighbourhood.
His main complaint, however, is that people with little culinary knowledge or skill can endanger people’s health. Moreover, McMillan says high turnover rates makes insurance more expensive and bank loans harder to get for the more serious players.
“I’m going to serve 100 meals tonight and I pray and I work so hard that everyone has a wholesome and healthful meal,” he said.
“The opportunity to introduce raw food and animal protein into people’s bodies is not to be taken lightly. At a minimum, there should be some kind of certification.”
But that would risk turning the city’s restaurant scene into a heavily bureaucratized nightmare like the province’s construction industry, says Francois Meunier of Quebec’s restaurateur lobby.
While chefs and owners can’t agree on issues such as restaurant quotas and chef certification, Meunier says most of his members’ profits are threatened by road construction, high property and licensing taxes, as well as the potential for a $15 hourly minimum wage.
“It’s only restaurateurs complaining there are too many restaurants,” he said. “Ask people, citizens, they have full choice, great price for quality compared to other cities.
“The role of the government is to offer conditions that are adequate for us to operate and not to strangle us with taxes.”
But Meunier’s position is nuanced and flirts with contradiction.
When it comes to food trucks, Meunier and his lobby don’t have a problem with regulations to limit entrants.
Montreal ended its ban on food trucks in 2013 but only allows restaurants with physical locations to operate them – cutting out anyone with modest means from starting a small street-food business.
“If we allowed anyone to do it we would have 500 hot dog trucks,” Meunier said. “And it wasn’t what the citizens wanted, it wasn’t what the city wanted.”
And while calls for restaurant quotas get a lot of attention, politicians have been lukewarm to the idea so as not to meddle with a recipe that is making Montreal, despite its poor infrastructure and sluggish economy, a destination-of-choice for discerning food tourists.
McMillan says bring on the competition.
“I worked in the top 10 restaurants in Montreal 25 years ago – none of them are here today,” he said. “All of the top 10 restaurants in Montreal right now – none of them will exist in 20 years. That’s history. That’s cyclical. Who says you’re good? You’re good and then you’re not.”