Canada

Pandemic frustrations too much for poutine restaurateur

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THUNDER BAY — For more than 30 years, Brigitte Tremblay, owner of La Poutine, has been serving her authentic poutine in various restaurants that she opened in Montreal and Ontario. With four of her establishments in the region, Tremblay eyed Thunder Bay.

“I thought, ‘They are ready for me and La Poutine,’ so I moved here and it instantly worked,” she said.

Building a large following of poutine lovers, everything was going wonderfully until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. With frequent closures due to provincial safety restrictions, Tremblay lost her staff and was left alone to run the restaurant with curbside service. The pressure and workload was tremendous, and with no returning staff, she chose to turn off the french fryers and close the business.

“It was just too much. I still averaged about 80 people a day and with just one person, it was just too much . . . and I got myself sick,” she said. “Hiring staff is impossible. I tried for the last month and hiring is impossible because of the Canadian Recovery Benefit (CRB).”

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Tremblay explained that employees can be on CRB and although they can make up hours, they come in and ask if they can only work the minimum hours.

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“It’s very difficult. For me to have a team — my menu is very complicated — I need at least a couple months to train my staff,” she said. “So I need to think of me. Is it going to continue? They open us, they close us. I still have bills to pay and even the grant money ran out.”

Making the decision to close her shop, which is located in the heart of the continuously developing Waterfront district, was heartbreaking for Tremblay, who says she lost her drive and determination because of the uncertainty. With lack of staff, bills to pay and rising food prices, her enthusiasm was replaced with worry.

“It’s a tough choice but at my age you get to thinking maybe it’s time for the new generation. I had 30 years in the business,” Tremblay said as she wiped away tears. “Now I have a choice.”

Tremblay has since sold the restaurant.

“For me it’s over,” she said. “I think it’s time for the younger generation.”

She says Thunder Bay has supported her and has showed her “so much love.” She will miss her patrons.

“I’ll support other businesses. There are a lot of nice ones around and I’ll be their customer now,” she said, attempting a smile. “I think I would love to go and help other businesses with this 30 years of experience. I hope I can still bring something to the community and I hope somebody out there will hear that and say, ‘Hey, we need you.’”

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Tremblay will serve her last poutine dishes on June 26 before saying a final goodbye to the business. She says the La Poutine brand name is for sale and if someone wants to buy the brand name and the recipe, Tremblay would be willing to join them for a while and help them get established.

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