Owning four venues without a single partner to help out is a hefty challenge — and it’s one that restaurant and bar owner Thomas Vernis has taken on in Old Montreal.
Over the last ten years, Vernis has built up a mini-empire, entirely within Montreal’s most tourist-friendly neighbourhood — restaurant-bar Santos, pizzeria Dolcetto & Co., café Tommy, and newly arrived “Canadian brasserie” Rockwood, open since July. And while other prominent restaurant players in the area morphed into more corporate affairs as they built up their portfolios, like the bigger Antonopoulos Group.
Vernis’ venues are organized into a group, Tomahawk, but it’s a small-scale affair, where Vernis stays hands on, without layers of staff working to organize operations.
“Honestly for now it’s more efficient, I like the efficiency of calling the shots alone, but I think that only a fool doesn’t change their mind. We’ll see in the future, honestly, at a certain level of growth I’ll have to get some people on board with me.”
Vernis started out adult life in business school at Montreal’s HEC, but “hated” it, and made the switch to hotel management; a stage at a hotel in Monaco was then what sold him on the industry.
“That’s why I do this job … it’s selling people pleasure.”
In Montreal, he managed supper clubs Buonanotte and Time before opening Santos, which turns ten this year. It does both Spanish-tinged cuisine, but also operates into the night as a more DJ-driven bar, but without going into fancier supper club territory.
Running a hybrid resto-bar like Santos quickly proved to be a very particular challenge, from staffing through to the way people perceive the restaurant, says Vernis.
“You never get recognition for food because people mostly see it as a club. It’s two very different games, and to merge them is an extra challenge. Even in terms of staff, you get an employee who loves service and wines and then telling them that their shift ends at 5 in the morning. It’s not like opening a bar at 10 p.m., it’s a double hustle.”
Those extra challenges could be part of the reason Vernis didn’t stick with the resto-bar approach for his later ventures, which are straight-up restaurants and a café. But it did help sell him on the neighbourhood.
“The image of Old Montreal as a tourist trap is changing a lot...I really want to make it a neighbourhood where Montrealers come to play and I find that that’s what’s happening.”
Perhaps given the presence of overpriced touristy eateries, alongside fine dining destinations like Toqué, Old Montreal has a reputation for being an expensive place to run a restaurant — and while Vernis acknowledges that rent can be pricy, it can be worth doing business there.
“It’s that you have to jack your prices because rent is expensive, the rent is expensive because you have traffic, it’s like opening a clothing store in Mile End versus Sainte-Catheirne.”
Vernis sticks to Old Montreal because it makes running multiple venues easier, but also because he’s more interested in having a diverse set of businesses in one place, rather than copies of one restaurant spread around the city.
“I want to stay Old Montreal specific for now and I don’t want to disperse my time in different neighbourhoods. I also don’t want to open two Santoses.”
He also has no plans to open up in other neighbourhoods — his next project is likely to have a Mile End vibe, Vernis says. And in the long-term, he’d love to do something that connects to the water at the Old Port.
“There’s not a single pool in Old Montreal. I’d love to have some type of a beachy restaurant-slash-bar, slash-hotel, slash beach by the water — if I could build it at Old Port or on Notre-Dame, with some kind of a bungalow, with an ocean or lake front vibe — a pool, some speakers.”
But with real estate around Quai de l’Horloge all tied up, that one’s just a pipe dream for now.