|The pink and white awning on Sherbrooke St. still looks new. The words on it, "Café Sunny buffet cuisine indienne et canadienne," have always promised more than this small restaurant could deliver; more, in fact, than any restaurant has ever been able to deliver here. The phone number is out of service and the windows, which used to be covered with hand lettered daily specials, now have posters plastered on them for a Flamenco Fiesta, a local jazz concert, and "Scotland's Celtic rock supergroup." Inside, a half dozen tables are draped with cloth but the door is locked and probably won't be opened again for a while.
Last year 618 restaurants opened in the Montreal area. Their owners were confident that they could run one of the most difficult and exhausting businesses around. Everyone has a dream. If you're a decent cook, willing to work for free as long as necessary and don't mind the hours, you might even make the dream come true.
Last year 674 restaurants went bankrupt. Other owners eschewed the legal formality, closed the doors and walked away. Many owners find the work too hard, some lose their families, some just don't want to lose any more money. It's a gambler's game. In this city, most restaurants fail in the first three years.
There are plenty of excuses for those that don't make it. Montrealers don't eat out in January, the weather is too cold in February, the city tore up the sidewalk in the spring, everybody is out of town during the summer, the staff demanded too much money, there are too many similar restaurants in the area
An established owner learns to be a businessman; but a first-time restauranteur is often an optimist and a fool. There is always some money coming in so there is always hope. There is no more immediate gratification than owning a restaurant and seeing people smile as they eat the food you've just prepared. There is no worse feeling at the end of the day than watching a buffet selection turn cold and greasy with so much food still untouched.
Even a successful restaurant can be an illusion. Suppliers may stake you for a while, the landlord might give you a little leeway in paying the rent. No one wants to see a restaurant fail. It's easy to lose a few thousand a month without ever realizing what is happening, and besides next month might be better. You keep saying that you'll turn the corner until there are no more corners left to turn.
Before its Indian incarnation this was a Caribbean spot and before that a restaurant with French and Spanish regional cooking. It's been a snack bar twice. Lately the real estate agent has been showing the place to an older couple who want to serve Jamaican home cooking.
The owners of Café Sunny tried their best. Ashok Chitra has earned his living as a cook for more than 20 years. He says that before he tried running his own place, he worked in many of Montreal's long-established Indian restaurants including Nataraj and the Bombay Palace. Both he and his wife are good cooks. Ashok was skilled at using the tandoor, the large clay oven common to North Indian cooking. He was a master at the art of making delicate Indian pastries.
Good cooking demands a discerning clientele and Montreal can be a tough town for first-time restaurant owners. Café Sunny had few customers and the specialties were getting made less frequently. Elsewhere, they might have made it; but there were few passersby and parking was difficult. Within a few weeks, Café Sunny had become yet another $5.95 all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Then there was the competition. The Chitras opened their restaurant in an area with two established places nearby serving similar Indian cooking. By the time Café Sunny closed there were three more Indian restaurants in the neighbourhood.
Ashok and his wife Usha had a dream. They wanted their own business and opened up Café Sunny, named for their three year old son. They opened at the end of the year. It was winter and during a recession; not a good time to start a restaurant in Montreal.
A few weeks ago, Ashok Chitra removed the menus from the windows and took the brightly coloured Indian tapestries off the walls. He said he had lost too much money and that the store had poor insulation and was too cold in the winter. This summer, municipal inspectors said that the electrical wiring should be changed and that might cost $10,000. Ashok cleaned out the tandoor oven and closed the front door for a final time. His words at the end were the same as when he had begun. "You have to take a chance once in a while," he said.