Montreal, say “bonjour hi” to Café Bonjour Hi.
The name is all in good fun, according to owner and chef Dave Plant, who didn’t mean to find himself caught up in our province’s latest language debate.
Easier said than done. Opened just last week, the St-Denis St. hangout has been on the receiving end of alternating one-star and five-star reviews — mostly the latter — on Google for more than a month, mostly but not always depending on where commenters fall along the linguistic divide.
As evidenced by a slow first week, the majority of reviewers have never set foot inside Café Bonjour Hi.
“I’d like us to be more than just a name,” Plant said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re really trying to do a good thing.”
He insists that the name is in no way meant to be an insult to the French language, as a few unhappy reviewers have suggested. Rather, he says, it is a nod to the unique identity of Montreal, where he lives with his Québécoise girlfriend of seven years and their dog, Leo.
Originally from Burlington, Ont., Plant started his service-industry career as a dishwasher at a Tim Horton’s, went to culinary school in Niagara and spent a year working in a Michelin-starred restaurant (The Ledbury) in London, England, before settling in Montreal in 2009.
Four years ago, after a stint working at Mile End’s Arts Café, Plant decided he was ready to strike out on his own. He started buying fridges and other equipment on Kijiji and storing them at his girlfriend’s apartment before taking over half a former ice cream shop in La Petite-Patrie.
He began making his own pastries and selling them to cafés around town, including Dispatch Coffee and Café Larue & Fils. From there, he added a catering division, Dave Plant Food (which he continues to operate), and moved to de Maisonneuve Blvd. in the Gay Village, where he also serves brunch and lunch.
The next logical step was a proper café. Plant found a cosy spot at 2054 St-Denis St., south of Sherbrooke St. When it came time to pick a name, an employee — inspired by a situation in which a customer, unhappy at being greeted with “Bonjour/Hi” at the de Maisonneuve location, had stormed out — jokingly suggested they go with Café Bonjour Hi.
“It rolls off the tongue,” Plant noted.
That was before Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, threatened to ban the greeting altogether, then backtracked.
“I didn’t think it was much of an issue,” Plant said. “I’m kind of surprised by how much people have been talking about it. I’ve been doing all these interviews. It just kind of blew up.”
And so while getting his café up and running, Plant has been fielding interview requests in both official languages.
“It’s interesting, whenever I do a French interview, we get negative reviews (online); and when I do an English one, we get positive reviews. It’s like we’re some middle ground of bitching, where people can go back and forth and take it out on us, whether they’re for or against (the greeting).”
Meanwhile, Plant is training staff and trying to get his wi-fi hooked up.
He would prefer that, instead of firing off reviews on their computer, people would come check out his café, where everything is made in-house.
“Our doughnuts are really good,” he said. “We have croissants, killer brownies and muffins — probably the best banana-bread muffin in the city.
“At the end of the day, I wish people would just come here, experience this place and give us positive feedback. We’re trying to do something good.”
The café is decorated with vintage furniture, with art by local artists. A turntable behind the counter plays vinyl classics when staff remember to turn it on. There’s a corner near the front with funky souvenirs made by local independent artists.
“My girlfriend works at the Museum of Fine Arts,” Plant said. “She gave me a bunch of names.”
It’s all about celebrating Montreal’s creativity, and the vibrant community of people Plant has met during his time in the city.
“Bonjour Hi is a reflection of me and my history being here,” he said. “It’s a way of promoting Montreal, which is bilingual, in my mind.
“You won’t get that (greeting) anywhere else in the world. It’s super original and cool.”