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Residents Versus Wood Ovens: Mile End Bagel Wars Fire Up

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But is it just a tiny minority who are outraged?

Inside St-Viateur Bagel
Getty Images/Thierry Monasse

Montreal’s two famed bagel bakeries are under fire from residents, complaining that the stores’ wood-fired ovens are emitting illegal levels of air pollution.

Since late last week, a flurry of news stories have popped up on the story: first in Le Journal de Montréal (TVA Nouvelles republished the same story), then spreading to CBC, CTV, and the Montreal Gazette (republished by the National Post).

The stories fall along the same lines: some Mile End residents are upset with the city’s best-known bagel makers, Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel, saying that their ovens emit fine particles that can provoke asthma, and contain other toxic chemicals like benzene. The issue is straightforward: it’s public health versus a major culinary icon for the city.

Wood burning is also a major cause of smog during Montreal’s winters, with the CBC noting that it accounts for some 40 per cent of all air pollution in the city. (Obviously, bagel stores are not the sole contributor to this: such numbers include any wood-burning industrial operations and wood fires in homes.)

Speaking to CTV, St-Viateur Bagel owner Joe Moreno says his bakery has made a concerted effort to work on the problem since then, bringing in “eco-logs” and reducing its emissions. Moreno noted that his store has already ordered a filter to further cut back on the problem. But speaking to the Journal de Montréal, he added that the technologies that could further help the problem are made for major industrial operations, and aren’t produced in a size that a small business like his could use.

St-Viateur has seven baking locations, only two of which are in Mile End. It has experimented with a part-gas, part-wood bakery at its Dollard-des-Ormeaux location, which was working, according to Moreno, but he still wouldn’t switch to 100 per cent gas ovens due to the effect it would have on the bagels’ flavour.

The emissions have been dropping: in 2009-2010, the city found that both stores were exceeding the emissions limit of 100 milligrams of particles per cubic metre by a factor of between nine and fourteen. According to the Gazette (from a similar story in June), the most recent tests in late 2016 showed that St-Viateur was now at double the limit, and Fairmount at four times the limit. Fairmount have also been hit with two fines for the issue.

It’s worth noting that the stories all feature comments from the same two aggrieved Mile End residents, and nobody else: Francois Grenier and Sarah Gilbert. (The earlier Gazette story featured a third resident, Dominique Charbonneau). But there’s little indication that they’re speaking for other residents: unlike other recent citizen-led movements such as the campaign against the Formula E electric car race, there’s no petition, no Facebook group, and it’s not clear that journalists can find anybody bothered by the bakeries beyond these two. Gilbert also posted all stories publicly to her Facebook, suggesting that it could be a coordinated campaign to court the media on her part.

On the flip side, some in the city aren’t buying the complaints, notably Joe Beef co-owner David McMillan.

The upset residents plan to take the issue to city council on Monday night — stay tuned for updates.

St-Viateur Bagel

263 Rue Saint Viateur Ouest, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, QC H2V 1Y1 (514) 276-8044 Visit Website

Fairmount Bagel

74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, QC H2T 2M2 (514) 272-0667 Visit Website