If you’re familiar with your local scene, you’ve heard it before: a successful bar owner opens yet another venue, gets national press attention or announces an important agreement with a brand, and some voices, often more junior, will complain that the big ones get all the breaks. It’s just easier for them, they say. More often than not, though, it’s because they’re good at what they do and have learned, along the way, from past struggles. Montreal-based Kevin Demers, one of Canada’s leading shaker and movers, owner of three establishments, offers a case in point.
When, after years of toiling in other people’s businesses, Kevin started work on what would become Coldroom, his first bar, it seemed like a dream coming true. « I looked at my bosses and I was convinced I could do it better than them », he now recalls. Interestingly, only a few years before, in his mid-twenties, he had decided to cut back on his involvement with the industry to pursue a career in films and television. But when, almost by accident, he ended up entering — and winning! — a competition, he was drawn back in. « People said ‘it doesn’t make sense’, how did this guy win’. I decided to prove them wrong and that’s when I really started to focus on cocktails ». The seed that would spawn Coldroom was sown.
In 2016, after six years of looking, he found an ideal location: « I thought it wasn’t going to cost me too much at the beginning. But building took 12 months and reality hit me in the face: I almost went bankrupt twice, I was doing the work myself for lack of money and almost set fire to the building… Everything that can go wrong when you set up a business went wrong.» And all of this happened the year his first child was born! « It was intense », Kevin repeats throughout our conversation. And at some point, he probably thought getting so deep into bartending was a mistake.
Things came to a head four months in. « I was way over my head. I had lunch and coffee at the same Italian place everyday and one day, I didn’t eat. The owner asked me what was happening and I just burst into tears and told him I didn’t have any money in the bank. » First, the man told him he could come and eat for free. And then, he became Kevin’s silent business partner: « At one point, I just asked him if he could lend me the money I needed. He went to his office, wrote me a check and told me ‘I don’t know what you’re planning to do but I’m doing this for you, because I’m betting on you’. » The handshake deal saved Kevin’s project. And thankfully for the partner, it worked — because, when finally introduced to the space, which was to be a hidden bar, he had his doubts: « Like a true, old Italian, he didn’t get the concept. ‘You’re not going to have a sign over the door? It doesn’t make sense! I’m regretting lending you money!’ », Kevin now laughs.
Although hidden and often called a speakeasy, Coldroom, to Kevin’s mind at least, evokes a sense of home. « When I was a kid, you didn’t have mobile phones and friends or family would drop unannounced and ring the bell to see if you were in. That’s what I wanted with the bar: you ring the bell, and the person who is going to take care of you all evening is opening the door and showing you in their home », he explains. So there’s a family feel to it, which he thinks explains his success. Also very important is the fact that the staff buys into the project. Kevin talks of a corporate vision for professional and personal growth, often lacking in the hospitality industry. « I want to support them and help them get better jobs, whether with a brand or as General Managers at other places or even bar owners », he tells us.
In making sure to open career paths for his staff, Kevin is not only working for his bars — building on Coldroom’s initial success, he went on to open Cuban-themed El Pequeño, Canada’s smallest cocktail bar (« Capacity: nine people standing ») and Parliament a novel take on the pub concept (« In Montreal, pubs are seen as watering holes. We want to redefine what the word means and elevate it ») —, he is also working for the community. He argues it makes business sense to help the scene you’re part of to grow. Over the last year, his businesses have made significant investments to bring star bartenders or educators to town, both in order to educate his teams and to highlight the city’s food and beverage charms, for example. And he has brought together a group of local bartenders to co-create a Montreal cocktail, which they have promoted at Tales of the Cocktail.
This is still pretty much a work in progress: Canada’s profile on the cocktail scene remains discreet, with no bar appearing on the World’s 50 Best list (Coldroom was recently featured on the 50 Best Discovery list, though — a first for Montreal), something Kevin finds difficult to understand. « Montreal is a small city, so I get it, but Toronto is a big hub so I’m really wondering what it is we’re not doing right. Are we not doing enough in terms of activations? Are we not engaging enough with the international community? Where are we dropping the ball? This is something I want to reassess », he says. An interesting challenge, for sure, but probably easier than the one he faced a mere four years ago, when is dreams threatened to turn into a nightmare.