The restaurant industry is one of shifting tides and weather patterns. What is hot today is cold tomorrow, and even the best-reviewed, trendiest establishments struggle to stay open past year five. Founded in 2007, the Parisian brasserie, Le Pois Penché, has become a beloved institution in the core of downtown Montreal and its Golden Square Mile neighborhood, one of the most competitive restaurant zones in Montreal.
As Le Pois Penché moves beyond its 10th decade, we sat down for a conversation with its owner, Imad Nabwani, and his communications and hospitality director, Fede Sanchez, to learn about the secrets of its longevity. Imad has been at the forefront of the Montreal restaurant industry for over 20 years. Born in Damascus, Syria, he worked at 5-star hotels in the Middle East and studied hotel management in Switzerland. He moved to Paris, where he spent his professional youth doing everything there is to do in the hotel business and falling in love with French culture and its food and wines.
He relocated to Montreal and joined the QDC Group in 1998, starting from the bottom, he rose quickly through the ranks and became vice-president, a position he held for 13 years. During that time, Imad managed the operations of some of Montreal’s biggest restaurants, including La Queue de Cheval, Trinity, 40Westt, and many more with tens of millions of dollars in combined annual revenue.
In 2011, Imad took the entrepreneurial leap and launched his own business, Golden Square Mile Hospitality, with the acquisition of Le Pois Penché. Today, the group also operates Hotel Chez Swann, Henri Brasserie Française at Hotel Birks, and Restaurant Gustave at Hotel St-Martin. As we share a coffee in Le Pois Penché’s posh dining room, surrounded by mirrors, patterned wood floors, burgundy leather banquettes, and lush red velvet chairs, we feel transported to Les Champs-Élysées and we can sense Imad’s deep affection and pride for his Parisian brasserie.
When you decided to become a restaurant owner in 2011, you could have started a new business. Why Le Pois Penché, a restaurant with a history?
This is a question I’ve been asked frequently. I’m grateful because the answer is important. For some mysterious genetic reason, I love French food and wines. I feel they are part of my being, as if I had been born in Burgundy. Le Pois Penché had been my favorite restaurant in the city, but the time demands and responsibilities of running such a large organization kept me away from giving it the extreme attention to detail and care it demanded.
I had always imagined that one day I would own a French brasserie. It was my childhood dream. The oyster shucking, the seafood platters, the steak frites, the wines, the friendly hustle and bustle… Paris was the first foreign city I visited as a boy and the trip made a big impact on me. The instant I discovered Paris and I saw Les Champs-Élysées, the bakeries, and the brasseries, I was seduced. I still remember vividly the smells of the cafés and the terraces. It was love at first sight.
At the time I bought le Pois Penché, it had lost its connection with the public. Some people advised me to change the name, but I decided to keep it because I believed in the entire restaurant and in its original concept. I had a strong feeling that Le Pois Penché, a gorgeous establishment in a centric downtown location, was the vehicle that would allow me to express immediately my work ethic, values, and knowledge. I’m one of those people who can’t wait to get up in the morning and come to work. I’m all about passion first, money second. I made a bet that the city and our customers would respond well to my commitment.
What has been the public’s reaction since you took the reigns of Le Pois Penché?
We have more than doubled sales since 2011. I would love to tell you that success was instant, but it wasn’t the case. People still tell me that I took on one of the hardest challenges in the restaurant business: to enhance the reputation and increase the sales of a restaurant that had already been opened for four years, without changing the name or making any major renovations.
We worked on the fundamentals every day. The food had to be excellent and the hospitality outstanding. We opened the door each morning as if it were our first day. We still do, well past our 10-year anniversary. In the business of fine dining without being pretentious, there is no such thing as maintaining what we have. We must be obsessively consistent where it matters to our guest, yet, improve incessantly in the areas that need to evolve with the times.
We didn’t make radical changes or launched hype ad campaigns. We kept our heads down and kept improving and improving, one minor change at a time, from one year to the next. Progressively, the Montreal community and tourists started to recognize our efforts. Our food reviews kept getting better and the guest satisfaction rate in our dining room kept increasing. We cultivated new regular guests every day and brought back old ones. We couldn’t be more grateful to the public for giving us their trust. 2018 was a record year.
What can you tell us about the French cuisine served at Pois Penché? How does it stay relevant with the rapid trend changes in the restaurant industry?
The evolution of restaurants in North America over the last 20 years has been impressive. We have come to appreciate every style of cuisine. Yet, French food remains very hot and very dear to diners of all generations. The recipient of the 2019 James Beard Award for Best new restaurant in America is Frenchette, a contemporary French brasserie. The top-4 spots on the Zagat survey of best New York restaurants are occupied by Le Bernadin, Bouley at Home, Daniel, and Jean-Georges, all French restaurants. The techniques of French cuisine are very much alive in the repertoire of some of the world’s best chefs, regardless of backgrounds: Chinese, Mexican, American contemporary, Japanese, Italian, etc. And some of Montreal’s finest restaurants are French or have a French base. The trends evolve and French techniques evolve right along with them.
Le Pois Penché is a Parisian brasserie with a Montreal heart, a beloved style of restaurant where luxury and casualness coexist seamlessly. Our menu is like a three-ring circus. One part of the show is dedicated to the eternal classics of French comfort food, done extremely well with a modern touch: duck confit, Niçoise salad, onion soup, steak frites, moules frites, tartares, etc. The second part specializes in the most luxurious brasserie stars: seasonal seafood platters, spectacular cuts of meat, and fish specialties. The third part consists of our chef’s daily creations and discoveries, featuring the finest local products. A brasserie is an everyday restaurant, where guests can be equally comfortable enjoying a quick tartare with fries or an epic feast of local seafood and oysters.
Can you confirm whether food and service are indeed the keys to longevity in the restaurant business?
Food and service (and accounting!) have to be outstanding. We would like them to be flawless, but we know that mistakes will always happen. When it comes to the public’s perception of the establishment, there is a third magical ingredient, which actually comes first: hospitality. While service is all about performing tasks with excellence, hospitality is the fine art of making our guests feel that we care about them and that we work for their happiness. If we achieve this, and guests come to enjoy our company and trust us, they will forgive even bad mistakes because they know that we will fix them and do our best to deliver excellence. If people feel good in our home they will keep visiting us.
At Le Pois Penché, our mission states that hospitality must be given first to our employees. This may sound as an odd concept to some, but we believe that our team must feel that we truly care about their well being and their careers. Only then will they be able to pass along the feeling of caring to our guests, with sincerity and pleasure.
We love it when guests treat our restaurant like their second home.
Do you think employees are the secret ingredients in the success formula?
Absolutely. They are the formula. They are the human beings who build or break relationships with our guests. Every staff member is equally important in our company culture, regardless of position.
We are also very involved in our community. Our restaurant and our staff participate in as many charity events as possible. Giving back is part of our culture and it doesn’t always have to take the form of a large event. For example, we have a small program in the restaurant called “$1 coffee”, whereby we ask our staff and ourselves (the owners) to donate a dollar every time we get a coffee. Every 3-6 months, we compile the money, match it, and write a cheque to a charity.
Can you share some major challenges you have faced since you started your company?
The biggest challenge was the first payroll. I was terrified. How am I going to pay all these people (laughs)? The challenges are endless. When people ask for advice to succeed in the restaurant business, I always tell them don’t try to reinvent the wheel – just master it. People say the restaurant business is hard, but it’s not harder that, say, the tech business, where the failure rate is higher.
The issue is quite the opposite: the problem is that it’s too easy to get into the business. Anyone with dreams and some recipes and money can open a restaurant. There are no mandatory qualifications. And there are so many fundamentals that people refuse to master before taking a blind leap of faith. Failure should not come as a surprise. Even having line-ups and shockingly good reviews is no guarantee that a restaurateur will make profits. The vast majority of restaurants that have been hailed as best-in-the-city by major critics do not make it past the 5-year mark.
What inspires you?
People. When our guests keep coming back and treat us as an important part of their daily life. When they return to spend time with dear ones, with business partners, with fellow workers. When they come back for their important celebrations and for all their special events.
I’m also inspired by the new generation. I listen to them and surround myself as much as possible with emerging talent. I admire them immensely. I try my hardest to see life through the eyes of my children and to adapt. I am committed to keep learning every day, and if a new way works best, then, it’s goodbye the old.
What’s in the future?
I believe in the French brasserie concept on a different level. I believe that our type of everyday restaurant for all occasions can bring value to many communities. There is a market for more bistros and brasseries in Montreal and other cities, and they will always be relevant. I want to continue spreading the hospitality, the flavors, the culture and the lifestyle I grew to love as a young man in Paris and, along the way, creating more career opportunities for employees. Also, and don’t say it too loudly, a Middle Eastern restaurant is in the works. Stay tuned.
What advice would you give yourself at age 25?
I would give the same advice my father gave me when I decided to go into this business. He was a lawyer, law book author, and university lecturer, and he wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but the trip to Paris changed everything. In the beginning, he didn’t like the idea of me entering the hospitality business, but he said, “if you are serious, get the proper education and do it well.” Always ask yourself if you are living your passion, if you are behaving like a decent human being, and if there is value in what you do. If your answers are a resounding yes, then, go for it. Money and success will be the inevitable reward of passion executed with knowledge and excellence. Be patient, gain experience, love what you do, and the rest will follow.
Le Pois Penché has been downtown Montreal’s favorite Parisian brasserie since 2007. It serves lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, late-night menus after 9 p.m., and 5-à-huîtres (oysters). The establishment hosts numerous private business and personal events in its banquet rooms and provides elite catering services for all occasions. Imad Nabwani is a knight of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a Chevalier of l’Ordre des coteaux de Champagne and other prestigious organizations. LePoisPenche.com