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Brownstein: Hard-hit restaurateurs pay cash gift forward to the more needy

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2020-12-19 Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette
a man and a woman taking a selfie: Luka Lecavallier with Alex Cohen and Raegan Steinberg at restaurant Arthur's. An anonymous benefactor has given the restaurant and four others $10,000 each. © Provided by The Gazette Luka Lecavallier with Alex Cohen and Raegan Steinberg at restaurant Arthur's. An anonymous benefactor has given the restaurant and four others $10,000 each.
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Few need more reminding about the financial woes posed by the pandemic than our restaurateurs. In spite of government help and some spots operating solely on takeout, it is estimated that as many as 60 per cent of restaurants could go under as a consequence.

So it could come as quite the surprise that after five hard-hit Montreal restaurants each received a $10,000 cheque from an anonymous donor, the owners decided, that instead of pocketing the cash, they would pay it forward by using the funds to provide meals for those they deemed to be in far greater need than themselves.

Apart from the costs of purchasing the food, all the monies received have gone toward collectively providing over 700 individual meals now and another group offering for 100 families in early January. Elaborate meals, too, reflecting the menus of the restos.

The meal-drive began Wednesday and concludes Monday.

The recipients of this donation are Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, from Arthur Nosh Bar; NDG Food Depot, from Tuck Shop; Shriners Hospital for Children, from Café Gentile; Organization Single MOMtreal, from Tavern on the Square; and Chez Doris from Lucille’s.

It had been the hope of the anonymous donor that the restaurateurs would pay some of this gift forward, but even he was taken aback they were giving it all over.

“That’s just amazing,” says the donor, who has insisted on anonymity. “I’ve been so moved by the way these restaurateurs, over the course of this year, not only have been dealing with so many challenges but also by the professionalism and spirit with which they’ve been carrying on. That was the kernel of inspiration for me.”

He points out that all five restaurants had been donating meals on their own to various groups in need since the start of the pandemic — and with little fanfare.

“Coming into the normally lucrative holiday season is a very difficult time for them. They’re being deprived of the usual parties that go a long way toward supporting them and their staffs the rest of the year.

“I told them that I wanted to help them and that I didn’t want to diminish or dismiss helping those in need, which I have been fortunate enough to do on my own. But it was them who said: ‘Could you help us help others.’ To me, that was such a perfect confluence of spirit and reflects who we are as Montrealers, that we’re not looking into the mirror but that we’re looking into the window. I’m just the pebble; they’re the ripples,” he says, crediting digital food-series producer Heidi Small for helping to spearhead the endeavour.

The hope is that others will be inspired to follow suit.

2020 had started off splendidly for Raegan Steinberg and her husband Alexandre Cohen, owners of St-Henri’s popular Arthur Nosh Bar. They had spent a considerable amount in renovating the latter and had invested more heavily in another St-Henri location, the chicken outlet Bucky Rooster’s, set to open last March. Plus they were operating two spots, Dirty Greens and Patzzi,  in the newly opened Le Cathcart food hall. Then the pandemic came, and their lives got turned around.

But say this for the couple: their collective cup is half-full, and they were gung-ho in wishing to pay it forward.

“We all do charitable donations this time of year anyway, but this is an opportunity to not go out of pocket and still be able to contribute to those in greater need,” says chef Steinberg, the mother of a two-year-old who is expecting another child in May.

“Obviously, these have been very trying times, but it could have been worse for us. We’re doing quite well on takeout at Arthur’s and Bucky Rooster’s.”

But no getting around it, this has been a rough year for Stephen Leslie, chef/co-owner of the 20-year-old Tavern on the Square and the 25-year-old Monkland Tavern. Even with takeout, Leslie figures his business has been down nearly 80 per cent since the start of the pandemic, and he has had to furlough most of his 60-member staff.

“We have to be really creative with our food and price point just to stay afloat and cover our overheads,” Leslie says. “Nonetheless, others are so much worse off.”

Tavern on the Square’s meal-donation to Organization Single MOMtreal was hardly a random choice.

“I’m a product of a single mom,” Leslie says. “My dad died when I was 4. So I have a very good idea how difficult it is for single-mom families at Christmas.

“No matter how tough it is for many of us in this business, I can honestly say we still feel much better giving than receiving. In essence, that’s our job.”


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