Le Fast Food du Québec

November 1, 2005 by D'Arcy Jenish

PHOTO: YVES BEAULIEU PHOTOGRAPHE INC.

PHOTO: YVES BEAULIEU PHOTOGRAPHE INC.

A mobile casse-croûte finds a temporary home during a festival at St-Tite, Que.

With his tanned complexion, his business casual attire and the fine gold chains hanging loosely around his neck, Peter Scapeti has the look of a man who would fit in nicely at the local golf and country club or a board meeting of the chamber of commerce. But here he is, on a warm, muggy afternoon, behind the counter of the Casse-Croûte Le Routelain on Highway 148 near Lachute, Que., the old highway on the north shore of the Ottawa River between Montreal and the nation’s capital. He’s flipping burgers, keeping an eye on the french fries hissing away in the deep fryer, talking to the clientele and smiling, always smiling. “This is fun,” the 57-year-old, former Montreal businessman tells a visitor. “I love it. You meet all kinds of people. Travellers, local people–people I never would have met.”

It’s also totally different from the vegetable oil processing plant he owned in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Leonard, which employed 69 people and did $15 million annually in sales. Scapeti and his partner, former Montreal restaurateur Peter Sabaziotis, purchased Le Routelain last June from a couple who were retiring after 36 years. They plan to add a few items to the menu, like souvlaki and salads that reflect Sabaziotis’ Greek heritage, but otherwise they’re keeping the name, the two part-time waitresses (Manon and Marielle) who worked for the previous owners and the staples on the menu–hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and, of course, the Quebec specialty known as poutine, french fries smothered in gravy and melted cheese curd. “The girls have been here a long time,” says Scapeti. “They know the clients. They know what they like. They don’t even have to ask what they want. People who come here know the cheeses, the sauces. If they’ve lasted that long, we’re not going to change them.”

In almost every corner of Quebec, in towns and villages and along secondary highways, there are small, locally owned restaurants like Le Routelain. Most have colourful names, and even more colourful decor, and the same core menu of hot dogs, pogos (breaded, deep-fried hot dogs), hamburgers, french fries, several types of poutine and a limited selection of sandwiches. Many have been around for several decades, long enough to have been passed on from mom and dad to a son or daughter. Or, in some cases, an enterprising couple prepared to work long hours for modest returns has started afresh to realize a shared dream of running their own business.

These restaurants are known as “casse-croûtes,” a Québécois term which literally means “breaking crusts,” but in Le grand dictionnaire terminologique, published by Quebec’s Office de la langue française, it has been translated, awkwardly, as lunch counter, luncheonette, quick lunch, quick lunch bar, luncheon bar and minute lunch. Try as they might, the translators employed by Quebec’s linguistic watchdog couldn’t come up with a tidy English equivalent for the simple reason that there isn’t anything quite like the casse-croûtes in English Canada.

The local burger joint might be the best match, but these establishments have been driven to the brink of extinction outside of Quebec by the relentless march of Macdonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and other, largely American chains, which have adapted their formats to fit markets of every size and description. Macdonald’s ubiquitous arches, for instance, now show up in communities of 10,000 or less and chains like Tim Horton’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken have also planted roots in small town Canada.

Quebeckers love their Big Macs and their Whoppers, as well, but language and culture have served as buffers to prevent the chains from penetrating as deeply as they have in English Canada. Jacques Lefebvre, Vice-President, Government Affairs, with the Conseil des chaînes de restaurant du Québec, says 25 big chains, including Macdonald’s, Tim Horton’s and the Quebec-based St-Hubert’s, have about 2,000 establishments in the province. He estimates they control about 60 per cent of the market compared with 65 per cent in the rest of Canada. Hans Brouillette, Communications Co-ordinator with the Association des restaurants du Québec, contends that the chains have only about 40 per cent of the province’s market. “Many have tried to introduce their concepts here and faced stiff competition,” says Brouillette. “A concept that is successful in the United States, or successful in Toronto, will not necessarily work here.”

Lefebvre agrees. “It’s a different market because people speak French,” he says. “Some chains are not interested in trying to reach the nooks and crannies of Quebec.”

It is in such places that the casse-croûte is king. Brouillette says there are 18,000 licensed restaurants in the province and estimates 2,250 of them are casse-croûtes. Firm numbers are impossible to come by because these establishments tend to fly below the proverbial radar screen. They’re small, independently owned, often seasonal and the proprietors are not the types to join trade associations. For one thing, there are fees to pay. For another, they’re too busy, especially during the summer when Quebeckers are travelling and business is at its best.

On a hot, humid Friday in late July, Yves Michaud is preparing for the dinner hour at Casse-Croûte L’Étoile Filante (Shooting Star), located on Highway 338, the main street of Saint-Zotique, a small community on the St. Lawrence River, less than 10 kilometres from the Ontario-Quebec border. The 58-year-old, former mechanic never stops moving. He assists the cook in the kitchen, which is right behind the counter, in full view of the restaurant’s 11 tables, each of which has an ashtray alongside the napkins, the ketchup, and the salt and pepper. He takes orders, serves the customers and clears the tables.

His wife and business partner, Lise Lepine, 65, is due in shortly to help out. She worked for two decades as a waitress, until they opened L’Étoile Filante five years ago in a building that had housed a used car company. He renovated the interior, put in the kitchen and added an ice cream counter while her touch is evident in the decor–pink walls, swags and wreaths as accents, and mobiles dangling form the ceilings, along with little, plastic shooting stars. They are open 14 hours daily, from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m., and closed only four days a year, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Years and Jan 2.

Although he switched careers at an age when many people are contemplating retirement, Michaud is glad he made the move, and so is Lepine. “We both worked for other people all our lives,” he says. “It was her dream to open a restaurant. She’s very happy to have her own place.”

Daniel Drolet, on the other hand, grew up in the business. In 1956, his father André quit his job in the shipping department of a Simpsons store in downtown Montreal and purchased a chip wagon. The previous owner lived in Varennes, then a tiny farming village located 55 kilometres east of Montreal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. He had towed the small, caboose-like trailer, called a roulotte in French–to community events and initially André Drolet used a tractor to haul it from place to place.

The elder Drolet built the business until he could acquire a piece of land on the highway from Varennes to Montreal to serve as a permanent home for the roulotte, which he called Restaurant M. Patate–Mr. Potatoe’s Restaurant. Daniel Drolet, the youngest of three children, was born in 1960. He began working at M. Patate at age seven, initially picking up refuse left in the parking lot by customers, and grew up listening to stories about how hard his parents had worked to establish themselves. His mother started daily at 5 a.m., cleaned the restaurant, peeled and sliced potatoes to make french fries, and served the public from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. His father started at 2 p.m. and usually kept the doors open till his wife returned the following morning–largely to serve the stragglers returning home from pubs and bars.

Daniel Drolet joined the business full-time at age16 and in 1993 took over from his father, who has since died. The Drolets kept the roulotte as part of the restaurant though it is concealed by panelling inside and aluminum siding outside. They added a kitchen at one end, small office on one side and a basement for storage. The interior is clean and compact, with counters and stools along the walls of the former chip wagon. Outside there is a patio with 18 picnic tables and on busy summer days they’re full, Drolet says. “It’s the prices and the cleanliness that attract people,” he says. “As well, people have memories of eating at places like this when they were young so they bring their kids. I have three generations of the same families who are regular customers.”

Casse-croûtes become local landmarks in many Quebec towns and villages and find a place in the memories of those who live there. Guylaine Pilote remembers stopping as a teenager for a burger and fries at Casse-Croûte Cri Cri, located on the main street of Saint-Bruno, in Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. Now, at age 48, she is co-owner of the restaurant with her partner, Eugene Tremblay, who is 75 and opened the restaurant in the mid-1960s with his first wife.

They named the casse-croûte for her sister, Christiane Larouche, who worked with them and whose nickname was Cri Cri. After the marriage ended, he focused on other business interests and the restaurant went downhill. Tremblay sold it, but the new owners went bankrupt. He bought it back, leased it to another operator who proved unsatisfactory and Tremblay finally decided to close it.

Pilote came to work for him after spending 22 years as a credit officer with the Bank of Montreal in nearby Alma and soon had her eye on the abandoned restaurant she had patronized as a child. Five years ago, she reopened it. “There wasn’t much left of it,” says Pilote, a slender woman with bright, intense eyes and hair dyed a wild assortment of colors, including auburn and fuschia. “People were very happy when it reopened. They knew Cri Cri as the place on the corner of the street in Saint-Bruno. It was a place where they got together.”

The rejuvenated Cri Cri has an aluminum-clad exterior painted a bright red, trimmed with a racy, yellow stripe and a roofed patio with four picnic tables. The interior, with its red linoleum floors and beige Arborite countertops, is as snug and cozy as it always was and can accommodate about two dozen diners, seven on the stools at the counter and the remainder at three booths along the opposite wall.

On summer days, when it is open from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m., the place is bustling at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pilote relies on two employees to handle kitchen duties while she takes orders, serves meals and cleans tables. When things slow down, there’s always work to do, like peeling and slicing potatoes, which is done with machines, but is still time-consuming. In a typical week, they go through 1,800 pounds of potatoes and $800 worth of cheese, which is used on the poutine, and those are pretty typical numbers for a busy casse-croûte.

French fries and poutine are the staples on a casse-croûte menu and the fries must be “frites maison”–made in-house. Frozen fries just don’t cut it with discriminating customers. At Le Routelain, Scapeti brings in 50 bags of potatoes at a time and, following the tradition of the previous owners, always purchases red potatoes. Drolet, who can go through 2,000 pounds of potatoes in a week, also buys red unless they’re not available. “The secret to a good french fry is fresh potatoes,” says Drolet. “Red potatoes are sweeter and make better fries. White potatoes make a drier french fry, like you get at Macdonald’s.”

There is, of course, only so much anyone can do to improve upon french fries. Poutine is another story. It is not uncommon to find casse-croûtes offering half a dozen variations. The menu at Casse-Croûte à la Pointe in Cap Sainte-Marthe, near Trois-Rivières, serves nine kinds. Proprietor Natalie Dehais offers her customers a choice between brown or barbecue sauce. There’s an Italian version with spaghetti sauce on top, another with coleslaw sprinkled over the sauce and cheese curd, and others that include chunks of chicken, hamburger or sausage.

Michaud and Lepine offer 10 variations in two sizes–medium and large–and what may well be the poutine to top all poutines, the Étoile Filante which comes with steak, bacon, pepperoni, mushrooms and onions.

Casse-croûte owners say their customers are primarily local residents or Quebeckers who are on the road. They don’t serve too many English Canadians, but even a unilingual anglophone could get by in a casse-croûte because the menus are usually written in a strange mélange of English and French. Most serve a hot dog rôti (grilled) and hot dog vapeur (steamed) as well as le hamburger and le cheeseburger.

More to the point, though, these small, independent restaurants generally serve fast food that is every bit as tasty as the fare that the big chains offer and at competitive prices. The owners are friendly and accommodating, the atmosphere warm and homey. All in all, a welcome relief from the tedium of freeways and the cookie cutter meals served at every exit.

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