The Café Downtown is changing ownership, with the founder, Rémi Bertrand, moving onto new projects. The new owners Natasha Lamadeleine and Alexandre Romain, two former employees of Bertrand, are set to take over after the new year.
Bertrand spoke with THE EQUITY about his original vision for the Café Downtown, his experience running it, and why he believes it’s in good hands going forward.
“So I’m originally from the Pontiac, Fort-Coulonge specifically is my hometown,” said Bertrand, who was once director general of the MRC Pontiac. “When covid hit, I was actually working in Los Angeles, California, as a management consultant for the entertainment industry. But, the entertainment industry collapsed with covid. So I came back to my hometown. I always wanted to invest myself into doing something that would be my own business. And so I said, this is the time.”
Bertrand then bought the previously abandoned building that became Café Downtown and set about turning it into the combination of bar, coffeeshop, live music venue and restaurant that it is today.
“My motivation was basically: I’ve played music my whole life, I always liked the service industry, I like meeting people and so on, so this was an opportunity for me to put all of that together,” said Bertrand. “I thought, I can do a project in my hometown, and give back to the community at the same time.”
Bertrand said helping revitalize his hometown would bring the ability for people to experience what he was able to do in town when he was kid.
“Fort-Coulonge was a dying municipality. A little town where businesses were moving out. So I said no, this trend needs to stop. If everybody’s putting businesses on the highway and everybody’s just going around with their vehicles, there’s nobody walking the sidewalks anymore and you know, meeting up to talk just because everybody’s in the same area. You can’t do that when you’re just driving to businesses. So I think something in the heart of the town for me was good because then it would get people back walking again and appreciating their downtown and maybe you know, have the spin-off effect and get other businesses relocating in the downtown of Fort-Coulonge.”
Bertrand emphasized the importance of the downtown part of Café Downtown by explaining that businesses like these are key to keeping towns alive. He explained towns that are walkable and have places to gather and socialize keep communities together and draw in visitors in a way that businesses along the highway can’t do.
“You’ll never hear anybody say, ‘Oh, I like to go to this highway strip mall where I can drive my vehicle and go from one big business to another’,’’ he explained. “For me, that’s what investing in a small town is. You’re not only investing in a business, you’re investing in the area’s quality of life.”
Bertrand then listed everything that makes the Café Downtown special, including a permanent stage, the only professional Italian espresso machine in the Pontiac, exclusive selling of Outaouais craft beers and an extensive wine list.
He also talked about how the kitchen evolved from only providing the basics to becoming almost a full restaurant.
Ultimately he stated how the idea of the café was a location where anybody could come hang out, regardless of the mood or occasion.
“The intent was really to have a spot where you could come if you feel lonely, if you want to celebrate something, you’re with friends, with family, you’re on a date with your loved one, or you just feel down and you don’t know where to go or you don’t really want to talk to anybody,” explained Bertrand. “There’s always staff here to welcome you with a smile and whatever your mindset is, or you can just come here and hang out and drink coffee or beer or a glass of wine.”
Bertrand said he always intended to operate the business for one or two years before moving on back to either his old business or to other projects he wanted to do in the Pontiac, but he didn’t just want to sell to just anybody, but instead someone who was going to maintain his original vision.
“I was never just going to put up a for sale sign,” he said. “This is a representation of who I am. So I wanted to find a new owner that could at least you know, do things differently, of course, but continue with the same principles of doing something for the community. Making sure it’s also a venue for performing arts and at least carrying on the vibe. It was just to be in the little niche market that we don’t necessarily find in the other establishments around town.”
Bertrand said that Romain, the café’s chef and incoming co-owner, was with him from day one. Over time Bertrand cultivated Romain as both a chef and as a manager of a business, gradually giving him more and more responsibility.
“So I would not only have him being a chef, but over time, have him involved in pricing items or how we manage the orders we’ve got or maintaining all the kitchen equipment or negotiating contracts with suppliers and so on. So slowly I got him more and more involved and to a point that it doesn’t scare him anymore. Because it’s not new,” said Bertrand.
About a year in, Romain brought up that he wanted to be Bertrand’s business partner. After Bertrand decided to sell, Natasha Lamadeleine, who worked part-time at the café while working full time for the federal government, brought up the idea of buying the business with Romain.
Bertrand is happy he’s found Romain and Lamadeleine because he believes they’ll keep to the spirit that the café was founded with but do so in their own way.
“They can do things completely differently. What interests me doesn’t mean it interests them as much. I am 47 and they’re in their 20s. So there’s a little difference there for sure. In what the interest areas are or the approach about it,” said Bertrand.
Both Romain and Lamadeleine say they want to keep the Café Downtown as a gathering place and expand the number of events. Romain said he plans on changing the menu to make it more seasonal, develop their own signature craft beer and eventually start a food truck. Romain also hopes to involve the café in annual events around the Pontiac.
Both Romain and Lamadeleine say they are excited for the new challenge.
Bertrand says he’s looking forward to some time off and then moving towards new things.
“I‘ve neglected my free time and my leisure time a little bit. So we’re very happy that we’re taking a little bit of time off this winter. My next project is planning a backpacking trip with my life partner, Jessica to Costa Rica. So we’re leaving at the end of January,” he said.
After that Bertand said he’ll continue with his consulting business, and then possibly moving on to a much bigger project.
“My heart is kind of set on this project that was presented to me a while back which is the creation of a national park here in the Pontiac,” he concluded.
We have to wait to see how that develops.
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