04 Dec 2019

Time 9 minutes

Gens du Vieux Portrait: Kevin Demers, the art of the bar and a passion for stories by this hockey-player-turned-businessman

Gens du Vieux Portrait: Kevin Demers, the art of the bar and a passion for stories by this hockey-player-turned-businessman

When he opened the door of the café in which we were waiting for him, Kevin greeted all the regulars and came to us with an infectious smile. With his athletic build, sleek outfit, and large smile, this businessman cannot help but be noticed. The owner of the Coldroom, El Pequeño, and Parliament has grown his success over the past few years and though he is also in charge of the pop-up Christmas bar, le Miracle, set up on rue de la Commune this year, he still took some time out of his schedule to talk success, business, hard work, and careers with us.

A man and his stories

Clearly for Kevin, a bar is an entire universe. And the reason his different establishments don’t compete with one another is because each one tries to push its identity, esthetic, and essence to the extreme. Kevin, who has studied scenario and TV production, emphasizes that: “It’s really very important to me. I invent scenarios and create a whole story in my head.” For his Cuban bar, El Pequeño, he explains: “Like I did for the Coldroom, and the Parliament before that, I sat on the premises with green tape – no really, green tape! – and I pored over the business for nearly two weeks.” He laughs before explaining, “a little like Russel Crowe in Beautiful Mind, when he sees the letters and numbers in the air around him, I perfected my plan, a potential lay-off scenario, everything. And of course, I also walked around the area and looked to see what was already there. Café Olimpico had just opened up, so I dropped my first idea of making something Italian, and then I had the idea to make a Cuban establishment.” Since then, he has crafted an entire world from the smallest bar in North America and his nine other places!

Right next to the Cuban bar, Coldroom’s white entry door with no sign has confused more than one hopeful customer. But once you do gain access, you feel like you’re part of a select group, party to a well-kept secret. We slipped in like VIPs and the stylish design of the club charmed us without seeming overly pretentious. The cocktail menu is refined and offers quite a diversity, but if you cannot find something you like on there, defer to the creativity of their barmen who are trained in the art of meeting your needs. A few notes here, a bit of good humour there, and you’ll see what the fuss is all about. We like le Dove, but a customized cocktail has the edge when it comes to appealing to each person’s unique palate, and these barmen have what it takes.

A gentleman’s world

Whichever business of Kevin Demers’ it may be, or whatever universe you find yourself immersed in, each establishment exudes a dandy charm. The inspirations drawn from Cuba, or Great Britain, or prohibition-era America reflect a certain epoch that brings Borsalino, Panama, silk scarves, and well-ironed shirts to mind. Kevin laughs once more, “Yes, it’s true. And honestly, I value being well-dressed. I got it from my grandfather, he would always tell me “You can never be overdressed.” Later, I really wanted the world to take me seriously, and as I loved Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Rat Pack… Well, this idea of being well-dressed and professional, it really spoke to me.” He continues, “When women go out and get themselves ready, they focus their attention on their outfit and their allure, and I think that the same should go for the men accompanying them or going out as well.” But there is no machismo in his thought process. On the contrary, the Coldroom’s site shows some rules of conduct for the gentlemen that do not have an equivalent for the ladies. “Being well-dressed, I believe, is a sign of respect, no matter who you’re talking to at the moment.” Of course, these rules are clear in his establishments: “I tell my employees to not worry about expressing themselves. You can have tattoos, whatever haircut you want, etc. Just as long as you have a shirt with a collar.” Behind this seriousness is a consideration for customers and a wish to “professionalize” the bar career.

Challenges and changes in Montréal’s bar scene

Kevin believes that from this professionalization comes not only an improvement to the customer offering, but also a higher consideration to those who work there. He estimates that “before long, working in the bars is going to be a side-hustle, but there are ways of building it into a career and besides, Montréal’s mixology scene is getting more and more interesting.” Kevin, several-time international cocktail competition winner, hesitated between his career in creation and having his own business, and it was only by realizing just how much he knows about his craft that he found his way.

“There was a book that really stuck with me called Outliers, and according to it, when you accrue 10,000 hours of experience in one domain, you can be considered a professional in that area. In July 2015, I knew that my daughter was on the way and I had two employment offers. One in Toronto to make films and television, and another in Nashville. But that would mean moving my family without knowing if it would really work. At the same time, there was also Tales of the Cocktail being held in New Orleans, and on a sudden impulse, I went with my brother. And there was where I had my revelation,” he remembers. “I have been in the bar industry for more than 10,000 hours, and I told myself that I could use my creative side in this job as well! When I got back to Montréal the following day, I got the phone call I had been waiting for, got the keys to the Coldroom, and started the journey I had been wanting for nearly a year.”

The lows before reaching the summit

We don’t doubt that it was with a chic wardrobe, plenty of self-confidence, and a calm and collected approach that Kevin Demers opened his first bar with 175 $ in the till, at least twenty-five books, and nearly two bankruptcies. His salvation was an almost morbid determination and the infallible support he gave to other Gens du Vieux. Between them, the neighbour businesses worked together with open hearts and well-placed intuition. “My owner gave me some really tough love, but at the same time, he taught me a lot and I had an excellent rent arrangement,” Kevin explains. And that’s not counting all of the work and investments that he was going to need to make. “I did not know that I needed a permit. I paid a mason to show me how, then I did all the brickwork myself with a heater (because it was cold out), and a hammer and pick.” Today the famous wall is an old-fashioned and iconic aspect that guards its secrets well.

Another person that helped be the man he is today was his Italian neighbour when he worked at Flyjin. “He was Benjamin Bello. Mr. Bello of Bello. At the time, I was doing renovations alone and continuing on as a bar manager at the same time. Before my shift I would go to Bello for a coffee and a sandwich between renovations and work. Two or three months later, I could only get the coffee, because honestly, I had nothing left in my bank account. Nothing!” Kevin reminisces on the emotional past. “And after a week, like a true Italian, Benny came to see me and he asked me: “What’s wrong? You aren’t eating anything!” And I started sobbing. I was at the end of my rope.” Together, they found some solutions, and the already well-established businessman supported Kevin and helped him realize his dream. “He said to me: I’m not investing in a business, I’m investing in you.” Kevin tells us. And to this day, the two men are great friends and you can sense the deep gratitude the young entrepreneur holds for his mentors.

Helping his followers, an act intrinsic to business

After getting advice, investments, and support, he has benefitted from his experience and has been gladly paying it forward. Specifically with donations and in association with charitable organizations, like Operation Santa Claus, to which Miracle will be donating half of its profits this year. But through workshops and training as well. “As I explained during my interview on the Bartender at Large podcast, the transition from manager to owner forces you to get organized and understand a ton of things very quickly. I want the busboys, servers, bartenders, and managers of today to see that it is possible. But I also want to help them because it’s tough out there,” he explains. “If not through financing, it could be by preparing a business plan with them, by opening doors, or by giving workshops.”

For one of his first workshops, Kevin brought in a tax accountant and TD advisor that he knew. He swept away the very idea of seeing the future bar proprietors as competition with the back of his hand. “I think that there is enough space in the market. Plus, everyone benefits if all bar and restaurant jobs professionalize, because that will place Montréal on the international stage.”

The key to success

Since, as with many places in Québec, a lack of workforce can be felt within the bar scene, Kevin counts on a loyal staff that he has taken the time to train and to appreciate. From his years in hockey, he has kept his supportive team spirit; from his years of managing a bar, he remembers what he liked and what divided employees; and as a bar owner, he appreciates and values the strength of a team. “We see each other seven days a week. We eat together, drink together, cry together, and laugh together. We are really like a family,” Kevin explains. “And this is really a team effort, which is a result of everyone’s hard work and ideas.”

Always on the search for a new locale and concept, if the opportunity presents itself in 2020, Kevin sees himself opening another establishment. If not in the Vieux, he has also been considering the Turks and Caicos Islands. But for the time being, Kevin is enjoying time with his daughter, and when we brought up work-family balance, he rushed to say “I’ve been taking weekends off for the last two months. It’s a first for me over these years working in the bars! It seems bizarre to me, but at the same time, I can count on my employees and delegate tasks to my trustworthy team.”