The owner of Chez Boris, beloved Mile End coffee shop and Russian doughnut maker since 2012, hosted a Reddit AMA on Tuesday. Boris Volfson began the Q & A session with this: "I am here to answer any questions you have about opening a (food) business in Montreal." A lot of redditors, some self-professed fans, some new to Chez Boris, duly obliged.
Volfson's résumé is atypical for a café owner; the native of Saint Petersburg, Russia has worked as a programmer and data analyst at MIT and McGill, and is currently based in Baltimore, where he works as a UI designer for a computer software technology company. For prospective café owners, and patrons too, the AMA yielded some candid, informative quotes. Here are some of the most notable:
1. On the city's inspection process: "Honestly, I have no complaints about the inspections. We try very hard to keep everything clean and our perishables in well working fridges. I was expecting the experience to be a lot worse."
2. On why Chez Boris no longer has a liquor permit: "We got rid of the alcohol license because very few people were interested in getting food with alcohol. (...) [I]t's very expensive to have a liquor license ($650 per year) and the cost of beer for cafes is very high (I believe it gets triple taxed). (...) I really don't want to sell beer for $5.50 or $6.00."
3. On whether he gets discouraged when people shun independent cafés for chain coffee shops: "Yes. But I learned that you do have to make compromises. Initially I was making coffee and doughnuts with organic milk. However, I couldn't charge clients a dollar premium on their lattes (and stay in business at the same time). (...) I think that the giant corporations do have to increase the quality of their products to compete with small businesses that are quality focused. Finally, I do believe that there is space for both types of businesses to operate and succeed."
4. On whether he pays employees fair wages: "I sacrifice a huge amount to pay Chez Boris employees more than minimum wage. Depending on experience with tips CB employees make more than $15/h. (...) I treat my employees better than I treat the business and I believe consequently I have very little turn over. Lastly, Chez Boris has bonuses and revenue sharing."
5. On Mile End's gentrification: "In general I hate aspects of what the Mile-End is turning into. I realize that I should take some responsibility for both existing (and thereby paying rent) in the Mile End, and create a 'trendy' place that impacts rent nearby. At the same time, I fight incredibly hard to make Chez Boris accessible to everyone. I am very proud that Chez Boris welcomes and makes both hipsters and families with children feel at home."
6. On Montreal's café scene: "I think Montreal is not quite at the same level as Toronto or Vancouver. Vancouver is great thanks to the West Coast cafe culture. Toronto owes a lot to third-wave consciousness/education raising things like the Indie Coffee Passport (which came to Montreal from Toronto). It also has to do with Montreal being poorer than Toronto/Vancouver."
You can enjoy the rest of Volfson's AMA here.