COVID-19: Young Montreal restaurant owners say dream being dragged down by city bureaucracy

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Montreal restaurant owners claim red tape from city is killing business
WATCH: Many restaurant owners are starting to feel a bit of optimism as terraces are set to reopen on Friday. But the owners of one up and coming establishment in Chinatown are feeling discouraged and demoralized. As Global’s Dan Spector reports, they argue while COVID-19 has indeed hurt their business, it's red tape from the city that might kill it – May 26, 2021

Many restaurant owners are starting to feel a bit of optimism as terraces are set to reopen this Friday, but owners of one up-and-coming establishment in Chinatown are feeling discouraged and demoralized.

They say though COVID-19 has indeed hurt their business, it’s red tape from the city that might kill it.

“I feel that the city should be an ally and not and and our worst enemy in this,” said Hugo Jacques, co-owner of Poincaré in Chinatown.

Jacques and his partner Françis Melançon had a vision. They decided to open their eco-friendly bar-restaurant, which emphasizes local drinks and food on St. Laurent Boulevard in the middle of Chinatown

“We’ve been dreaming about opening this bar for like six years,” said Jacques.

Like every restaurant, the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt them, but that’s not even what they’re upset about.

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“Our biggest enemy is the city’s bureaucracy. It’s not even COVID anymore,” he said.

Jacques explained that when they decided on their location above a Vietnamese sandwich place back in 2019, they chose it because they wanted the rooftop terrace.

“The financial model was all based on revenues made from the terrace that we would have from the get go. The marketing plans were all based on the terrace that we would have from the get go. I mean, nobody in their right minds put themselves on the second floor of a building for just for the heck of it,” explained Melançon.

Jacques said the ownership group went to the city right away.

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“We asked if it was at all possible, and they told us that there was no problem,” he recounted.

They signed a lease with the owner of the building with the condition that the terrace would be built.

They began making plans and starting renovations, but bad news came from the city.

“They reviewed the laws and realized that we were not allowed to have a patio on the rooftop,” said Jacques.

The Poincaré owners say they were told they would need special permission from the city, which meant thousands of dollars in costs, and waiting for Ville-Marie borough councillors to vote on their proposal at city council meetings. Jacques says it was a six month process.

Meanwhile, when they asked for permits to build stairs and roof access, they say they got another surprise.

“Something else that they didn’t know or didn’t figure out was that we were in a heritage area, because we’re under 200 meters from Monument National,” Jacques explained.

They would now need approval from the heritage department.

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“This took around six months of back and forth before we got the permit,” he said, wondering why no city official had informed them from the start.

Melançon feels different city departments that each need to approve their permit are not working harmoniously together.

Our permits have been thrown around from town planning division, permit division, heritage division. Why don’t they put a Post-it on it to warn other guys that probably don’t know about it?” he said.

Finally, they started building the stairs toward the roof and an extension that had been agreed upon with the city. The building had no roof access prior to them moving in. Those additions were part of an $80,000 renovation.

COVID hit, and the process slowed down. The establishment opened without the terrace, and pivoted to doing takeout like many others. Melançon and Jacques say without government subsidies, they would have already given up on their dream project.

In early 2021, they went back to the city to get the permit to create the actual terrace, in anticipation of a summer opening. Jacques said for weeks, he could not reach the person responsible for the file that he’d previously spoken to. Finally, he decided to go visit the city office in person, and found out someone new was now in charge of the file.

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“She tells me that there’s huge waits now, and that because I just got in, now I’m at the bottom of the pile,” he explained.

He says he also learned they would again have to go through the heritage department to approve the terrace, even though officials had already seen the full plans from the start.

“I’m just completely overwhelmed and tired. I just can’t deal with this bureaucracy anymore,” said Jacques. “We’ve had to deal with errors throughout this process, human errors that were not committed by us. We were told things and then told different things later multiple times.

“When you see that light at the end of the tunnel, you don’t expect the tunnel to stretch for miles and miles,” Melançon said.

The pair point to city announcements about revitalizing downtown, and Chinatown specifically. They wonder why the city wouldn’t help them navigate the red tape as they try to create something they believe would help Chinatown thrive.

Mayor Plante happened to be making an announcement in Chinatown the same day Global News visited Poincaré.

She was aware of the case as she had voted on the decision to approve the terrace at council.

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“We want to accompany this business,” she told Global News. “We want this business owner to be happy and reopen as soon as possible.”

She pointed to how the situation was made more complicated by the fact that the terrace was planned for a rooftop rather than the street.

“There are specific rules. We need to make sure it’s safe for citizens, and as for heritage, that’s a condition coming from Quebec,” she explained.

Meanwhile the two thirty somethings who began with a dream now have a bitter taste in their mouths.

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