All right, Holybelly has been in business for 3 real months now and I’ve been meaning to post some before photos for a little while. Now that we’re all used to the look and the vibe at the Belly I thought it’d be fun to rewind a little and take you guys back all the way to when we first visited the shop, back when it was still “Aux Oliviers”.
So, when you want to buy a restaurant, there isn’t a million ways to go about it. Either you’re in the game, you already own a business, some of your friends do and you just know if something is available and up for grabs, or you’re like Sarah and I, fresh on the scene, recently back from 6 years spent abroad and you don’t have a freaking clue who to talk to or where to look, so you go to a real estate agent. They are not the most pleasant individuals to deal with, they cost a little fortune in commissions and they probably won’t understand what it is you want to create. “Specialty coffee? Fresh, local, savoury breakfasts? Naaah! Why don’t you do tapas, wine and cocktails, plancha of saucisson, boom! Done! That’s what all the young folks like you do these days!” You get the picture. We spent about 6 weeks checking shops all over the city. Some were small, some were big, some expensive, some dirt cheap, but they all had something in common : they all sucked. A lot. I got really frustrated after a while, just plain tired of running around to see places that absolutely did not match what we had in mind. The most frustrating part was watching the real estate agents trying to shove it down our throat: “It ain’t that bad! You can fix it up a bit and it’ll be great! It’s a steal at 150K…” Bla bla bla, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit…
One day we went to see Aux Oliviers in the 10th. The preview pic on the ID card at the real estate agents office looked like shit. A long, narrow, dark shithole, but it had a proper smoke extraction, a professional kitchen with a lot of equipment, it was in our price range, the rent was decent and we liked the neighbourhood so we went to check it out. As soon as I walked in I knew I didn’t want to buy it. It was sad as shit. Low ceilings, no day light, no character, long and narrow, ugly and depressing. No way we were going to buy it. We did the courtesy visit, pretended that “yeah, maybe, we’ll think about it” and left at once. On the ride back home I told Sarah how tired I was of checking out shitholes. In my mind I had images of Market Lane, Auctions Rooms, Proud Mary from Melbourne. Sexy, charming, drenched in daylight. The contrast with what I had in mind and what the real estate agent was showing us was just stupid. I thought we’d never find a good spot.
Couple of weeks went by. We saw more sad, depressing and overpriced joints. I’d go to Ten Belles daily and complain to Thomas and Chris about my growing despair to ever find something nice. One day over lunch we did a pros and cons list with Sarah about Aux Oliviers and, on paper, it actually had a lot of pros: good location, cheap to buy, cheap rent, new lease, legit extraction, good square-meterage, lots of kitchen equipment included etc. So we arranged a second visit with an architect friend, Olivier.
We looked at it in a different light. What if we tore the place apart? What if we knocked all the walls down, opened the kitchen, re-did the store front, exposed the walls, the ceilings, the floors? Pretty much hit the reset button and start fresh? Yeah, maybe it could work. So we got to work. I got home and downloaded Sketchup, modeled the place in 3D and started moving stuff around, and it started to look good. We made the move, bought the place etc.
After a few successive miracles, we got the keys to the place. We had a rad “Demolition party” with all our friends. Had way too much to drink, drew on the walls because they were finally ours and they were going to get knocked down in a matter of hours. It was funny because you could tell our friends were happy for us, but on the other hand they thought the place was a dump and it looked like shit, but they couldn’t tell us that since we had just dropped major euros to buy it and we were psyched. We knew the potential it had, but at the demo party I’m sure there was a lot of “Why the hell did they buy this piece of crap?” and I can’t blame them.
In the following days we cleared the place of all the junk. You don’t want to know what we found in that kitchen.
Emptied the basement (3 trucks worth of crap), sold the outdated chairs and tables, the depressing refrigerated buffet. It started to look good.
Once the place was fully emptied the demo crew showed up. And then it started to look very good. I remember it was a super hot summer day. Sarah’s parents were in town so we went for lunch at Le Verre Volé next door. Before we went for lunch I gave the keys to the demo crew. Sarah’s parents got to see the place just before it got trashed.
We went for lunch for a couple of hours. When we came back there was a dude hanging off the ceiling, smashing it with his other hand. Another guy had ripped off the ugly toilets entirely. The kitchen had already been partially opened. There was dust and broken shit everywhere, we were ecstatic. For the first time the place had stopped looking like Aux Oliviers and finally looked like what we had in mind.
Once the place had been fully demolished and emptied out it looked twice its original size! I remember Sarah and I freaking out: “This is way bigger than we anticipated. This isn’t the small café we talked about, this is a proper restaurant-size business, oh shit what did we do!”
In the following weeks Sveto and his guys were going from Holybelly to Belleville Brulerie to Lockwood. Once the demo was done at our place they’d go to Lockwood to tare the walls there. Once the electricity was done at Belleville they’d come to Holybelly to wire it up etc. I’d call Thomas and David constantly to know where the guys were at and Olivier and Christophe would do the same with me.
We were on Sveto’s ass constantly. We were on the chantier daily, which I’m sure they hated, but we wanted to make sure it was done just right. Eventually we would got at night once they were gone and inspect everything that had been done during the day.
Some weeks it would change drastically, some other weeks not at all. It was super nerve-wracking but also very exciting. All the floors were exposed and re-done, so were the walls and ceilings.
One day they showed up with all the furniture wrapped up in plastic. Dozens of bits and pieces. We tried to guess what was what. And then in a matter of just a few days the store front changed entirely (I remember showing up early one morning to let EDF in and I did’t have the keys to the new door! “Sorry guys, it was a different door until last night!”) and then the booth appeared, the bar, the sinks, the tables, we had lights and running water, ATMP came to deliver and install the Linea, we plugged in the fridges, the pinball machine, we got the plates out of the boxes, got the chairs out of the basements, plugged in the speakers and before you know it looked like what we always had in mind. It was weird and awesome.
We started to blast some good tunes, the girls started to test cook the soon-to-be menu items in the brand new kitchen, still putting labels on the boxes and filling up the shelves. The place started to smell like food being cooked and fresh coffee being made for the first time, it was just insane for us. After all we had to do to get there, I made sure to sit down on table 1 for a very long time, have a long look around and enjoy each and every bite of these first scrambled eggs and every sip of that filter coffee. We had finally made it.
Then came day one, the opening day. The stress to get everything ready the night before. The exhaustion, the 4 hours nights… I remember poor Marie-Louise trimming the menus edges with a box cutter and a ruler 15 minutes before opening. For some reason I thought it’d be a good idea to do it in the morning. She confessed a few weeks later that it had been a pretty stressful episode. No shit.
And then we opened the door. You guys came in, friends, industry peeps, perfect strangers, it was on. The coffee wasn’t tasting right, there was a million things that weren’t ready. Chris (Nielson, from Fondation) came in with his wife Emily and his parents for some breakfast at 8am sharp! So much pressure. I kidnapped David (Flynn, from Belleville) “Dude, please do your thing, make the espresso pour right!”. And somehow it worked, food went out, orders were taken, coffee was being made, it was incredible.
And we went back at it the next day, and then the day after that. Systems were created, workflows adopted, food came out faster and faster, so did coffee orders, we got better at seating, greeting and taking care of you guys and in a matter of weeks it felt, looked and operated like a real café, which was incredible to me.
So here you have it. The full story of how Holybelly became the place it is today. I could talk your ear off about the making of this place but essentially this is how it happened. I constantly remind myself about all this, how lucky we are to have made it this far after all that had to be done. On sundays, at 5pm, when I’m starting to feel the fatigue creep in, I take a good look around. I see people drinking coffee, finishing off their plates, ordering second servings of cakes, Sarah and Lise doing their thing in the kitchen, my boys going hard on the Monster Bash, Marie-Louise and Lucie running around trying to keep up with the millions things they’ve gotta do, and I can’t help but smiling.
I freaking love Holybelly.