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Bar Loïc Montreal
Photograph: Matthew Perrin

“Give us permission to save ourselves”: Inside the struggle of Montreal’s wine bars

Dual-permit bars—bar permit holders with robust food menus—aren’t receiving the same treatment as restaurants

By JP Karwacki
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March 15th, 2020 will go down in hospitality history in Montreal: That was the day when all bars and restaurants were forced by the Quebec government to close their doors and—if possible—offer takeout food.

The ‘if possible’ is key here, as a double standard’s at play against Montreal’s bars. While restaurants have been recently equipped with a government allowance to sell alcohol with orders of food, bars which primarily hold bar permits alongside serving menus are unable to sell their stock in turn. It goes without saying that restaurants are faring leagues better by comparison, but the city’s boozy institutions currently face a slippery slope with no line being thrown.

After closing their doors to customers on the 15th, the Saint-Henri wine bar Loïc immediately went into survival mode within four days, its proprietors Max Ruiz-Laing, chef Liam Barron and Michael Griffin flipping the operation to deliver bottles of wine and a small menu of hamburgers, fried chicken sandwiches, slices of key lime pie and salads.  

Less than two weeks after launching their new arrangement, three officers of the SPVM’s ‘morality police’ (investigative officials handling issues related to alcohol, drugs, and sex work) came into the business to shut it down. Ruiz-Laing directed their attention to their food handling permit, a MAPAQ, but Loïc was forced to close regardless. Two weeks and one online petition garnering over 3,000 signatures later, the business was informed that it could reopen for the takeout and delivery of food only.

Is it enough? Not in the long run. While orders are coming in and the community response has been amazing, "business is going terribly, there’s no two ways about it,” Ruiz-Laing explained in an interview with Time Out Montreal. “If you consider the costs at play, (asking) how am I going to make this a viable enterprise, you don’t say to yourself ‘and if there’s a mega disaster, I’ll just sell hamburgers and fries for $16 a pop.’” Couple those lowered sales with the costs behind delivery—the owners share shifts driving orders around town—and the situation looks dire.

What could help bars like this one? One initiative using the tag #unbarcestunepme ('a bar is a SME' or small-to-medium-sized business) suggests allowing bars who hold food handling permits to sell what they sell best: Wine. Loïc is among a substantial amount of signatories—alongside Montreal businesses Buvette chez Simone, Le Rouge-Gorge, Bar Henrietta, Majestique,, Le Darling, Taverne Saint-Sacrement, vinvinvin, Bar Furco and Ratafia plus Soif Bar à Vin in Gatineau—on a letter sent to elected officials that was shared on social media on May 5th by the sommelier Véronique Rivest of Soif:

As the letter notes, while food sales can represent anywhere between 20% to 50% of the above businesses’ income, permission to sell food is far from a cure to what’s ailing the industry The sale of alcohol is a deeply complicated affair in Quebec filled with bureaucracy that stems from its anti-corruption approaches to organized crime in the past.

“If you own a bar, at any time,” Ruiz-Laing explains, “an armed police officer can come into your place with a flashlight; flash it in your customers’ faces, flash it in your face, show me your liquor, show me your permit, what are you doing, what’s your name, have there been any criminals in here?” It’s a possibility that few other industries in the province can face in their day-to-day.

As the open letter states, “other Canadian provinces and many US states have also allowed licensed establishments to sell take-out alcohol.” While a total roll-back of legislation is unlikely, a temporary stopgap against current restrictions seems a viable path to proceed on. “Give us permission to save ourselves,” says Ruiz-Laing. Here's his version in English:

Meanwhile, business for Quebec’s provincial Crown corporation SAQ experienced a boom “comparable to that during the weeks before the holiday period,” SAQ spokesperson Mathieu Gaudreault told the Montreal Gazette. While Gaudreault noted that sales have since “stabilized,” the SAQ remains a monopoly which controls the sale of alcohol in the province; they’ve been permitted to delivers to Montrealers’ doors, sell their own private imports—a major drawcard of Montreal’s wine bars—and use marketing to encourage businesses to use their products. The deck is stacked.

No proprietor could have foreseen the effect that the pandemic would have on their business—diminished sales, rent payments, staff lay-offs and more—but for dual-permit bars, the pandemic’s effect has been exacerbated by their inability to sell their alcohol. So long as they primarily hold a bar permit as a business, the most those bars can do for now is sell food as they sit on their liquid inventories.

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