In 2017, there’s no shortage of Montreal diners — especially young ones — who are familiar with vegan food. But what was it like twenty years ago for those businesses who were setting up the first vegan restaurants in the city?
“It wasn’t cool. If you had a vegan business, it was going to take a long time to explain why,” said Aux Vivres’ Michael Makhan, while laughing. “People would be like, ‘What? What do you mean? Why can’t I have some cheese?’”
Now the co-owner of the growing business and restaurant Aux Vivres with brother Liam, Makhan has been with the restaurant ever since its beginning in 1997.
Originally on the much quieter St-Dominique Street (immediately behind St-Laurent), Aux Vivres was then called Les Vivres and was owned by Marie-Pierre Michaud, who hired Makhan to cook and wash dishes.
“I gave her a call and the rest is history,” he said.
Despite veganism’s status as a niche diet at the time, Makhan says locals became curious and soon the place built up popularity — although it was sometimes difficult for them to explain their vision to outsiders more inclined to douse their food in mayonnaise instead.
Les Vivres was insistent on not selling big brands like Pepsi or Coca Cola, instead opting to sell kombucha brews made by a neighbour from down the street. That confused some guests.
“It was a counterculture place,” he explained, and many local artists were frequent guests.
But it was a never a strictly activist corner. What was important to them was to have a place where everyone felt welcome to try something new.
“I think in the beginning we had a lot of that activism in our culture, but it wasn’t necessarily our strongest element,” Makhan explained. “The idea of creating food that has a low carbon [footprint], that is ecological and sustainable, that’s at the core of our values. To give alternatives.”
“That to us is activism.”
By 2002, Makhan became a co-owner with Michaud, who moved on to other projects in 2003. His brother Liam joined the business as a general manager in 2005, a few years after it moved to its current location on St. Laurent. Liam helped renovate and expand Aux Vivres into the adjacent space, a former art supplies store.
Alongside the transformation into a hugely popular vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres has since gradually expanded into food distribution, sending off products to 160 different campuses, grocery stores, cafes, and hospitals around Montreal and Quebec. They operate several kitchens around the city to keep up, and the brothers bought tempeh company Noble Bean, in 2014.
Noble Bean itself draws its roots from Allan and Susan Brown, whose recipe for making tempeh comes from time spent learning the art at a farm-commune in Tennessee in the early ‘70s. In 1979 they started selling tempeh in Toronto’s Kensington market, (then relocated to Elphin, Ontario) and when they were looking to retire 35 years later the first people they asked to buy the business were the Aux Vivres brothers — their biggest customers.
While Aux Vivres is growing again, adding a Westmount restaurant, Makhan says he’s satisfied at the moment, and doesn’t want to pursue big expansions so that he and his brother can continue being involved in as many aspects of the process as possible.
“It’s been a long road,” said Makhan. “It’s one of those things, when you know you need to do something, you do it. That’s kind of the path I walked.”