“Bagel!” chimed the voice at the other end of the phone line, by way of greeting.
I had called St-Viateur Bagel on Monday morning looking for owner Joe Morena, but even before I found him I had found my lede.
I mean, what else is there to say?
On Sunday, St-Viateur will celebrate 60 years of bagels with a block party taking over the street that bears its name. All proceeds will go to the Foundation of the Stars. That’s a lot of years, and a lot of bagels — a lot of bagels made, and a lot of bagels eaten, by you, me and everyone we know.
Unless you’re a Fairmount Bagel person, in which case, you probably eat a lot of slightly less tasty bagels — kidding!
“They have their clients, we have ours,” Morena said, diplomatically, when I caught up with him later that morning.
“It would seem it’s who you’re introduced to first, in terms of where your loyalty lies,” opined his equally diplomatic son Robert.
I grew up around the corner from St-Viateur Bagel, or as we called it, “the bagel factory,” like it was some kind of Willy Wonka haven of magic treats — which, in a way, it is. When setting out to deliver the Gazette in the mid-’80s, at age 13, I would drop in and buy a couple hot, at 10 cents a pop, to sustain me on my route — poppy seed was my preference.
More than 30 years later, at 85 cents each, they’re still a bargain.
“What else do you get for a $1?” Morena asked. “You go buy a croissant, it’s a buck and-a-half.”
Morena got into the bagel business late, in 1962, five years after founder Myer Lewkowicz opened what would become a Montreal landmark. Lewkowicz, a concentration camp survivor, had come to Montreal in 1952. Morena’s family arrived from Italy in 1958, when he was 10 years old.
“Our first house was at St-Viateur and Waverly,” Morena said. “I used to deliver milk to (Lewkowicz’s) house. That’s how I met him.”
Morena began working at the bagel shop at 14, carrying in wood to keep the oven going, but it wasn’t long before he was taught the tricks of the trade, picking up a little Yiddish along the way.
“I learned to make bagels pretty fast,” he said.
Quizzed on the secret of Montreal bagels, which some say is in the city’s water, he set the record straight.
“That’s a myth,” he said. “The water definitely has something to do with it — we’ve got great water. But the fact that they’re made by hand, boiled in honey water and baked in our oven — it’s the way you bake them, the smoke. Our oven is built by this old Russian guy. It bakes the bagel, then the smoke hovers on top, and that’s where you get that beautiful smell that comes out.”
Spoken like a true connoisseur. Morena bought in for 50 per cent of the business in 1974, buying the other half when Lewkowicz died 20 years later, and taking on partner Marco Sbalno. Along the way, he brought his three sons — Vince, Niccolo and Robert — into the fold.
With their help, St-Viateur Bagel has expanded into a modest empire with café outposts on Mt-Royal Ave., Monkland Blvd. and on Tecumseh St. in Dollard des Ormeaux, plus a three-oven factory in Laval that supplies many of the city’s grocery chains, including Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys.
How many bagels do they pump out per day? Nobody seems to know for sure.
“You’d need a calculator,” Robert said, explaining that at the main St-Viateur location alone, they produce “14-16 doughs a day, 55 dozen a dough, you’re close to 1,000 dozen a day.”
You read right, nearly 12,000 bagels a day, just on St-Viateur. It helps that the shop is open 24 hours, stopping production (while keeping the counter open for business) between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m. to clean the premises, then back to baking.
Explaining the secret to St-Viateur Bagel’s success, Robert points to his father.
“For starters, Joe Morena himself,” he said. “It’s about the grass roots of being generous to our locals and our clients. We’re very good with our staff. We give you a great product all the time. And it’s the process: you can’t beat it, can’t change it.”
St-Viateur is built on loyalty, with many employees sticking around for decades and getting promoted to management roles.
“I stopped counting after 30 (years of working here),” said manager Saul Restrepo, who was 10 years old when his family arrived from Colombia in 1974 and moved to Parc Ave. and St-Viateur St., a stone’s throw from the bagel shop.
He was delivering the Gazette in Outremont, seven years later (a route I now realize I may well have taken over), when he came in for a bagel one day and Morena offered him a job.
The times they are a changin’ on St-Viateur St. While such mainstays as Café Olimpico, Arahova Souvlaki and Milano grocery store remain, trendy businesses like David’s Tea and Lululemon point to the gentrification of the neighbourhood.
But stand outside St-Viateur Bagel for a half-hour and you’ll see that bagels are the great equalizer. Everybody eats them, everybody loves them, and everybody is welcome on Sunday as Morena and his extended family celebrate 60 years of serving the community.
Asked how his business has survived the changing times, Morena had a simple answer.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” he said, “mixed up with a little love. You’ve got to love what you do.”
AT A GLANCE
St-Viateur Bagel, 263 St-Viateur St., celebrates its 60th anniversary with a block party on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. All proceeds go the Foundation of the Stars. For more information look up St-Viateur Bagel 60th Anniversary Party on Facebook.