Inside, the unique aroma of toasted seeds and honey-sweetened baked dough permeates every crevice of the shop, creating an effortless hominess.I brave the crowd to meet Vince Morena, 46, one of the family members at the helm of the bagel-making enterprise. Morena, is happy to talk about the little bakery that could, its community ties and how it’s evolved over six decades of serving bagel lovers. “Myer Lewkowicz founded the original shop in 1957. My father, Joe Morena, used to deliver milk to his house and got to know him,” Morena recounts. “One day, Lewkowicz offered him a job, and my father, 14-years-old at the time, started working the next day. In 1994, he and his partner, Marco Sblano, bought out the business.”
Today there are eight stores, plus an online shop and major grocery-store presence. A great part of the brand’s continuing success is its ability to connect with customers and the community. Morena and his brothers – Nick and Robert may be well-recognized neighbourhood figures, but Italian-born, Yiddish-speaking Joe, 69, commands rockstar adulation. “My dad is like the King of Kensington; everybody knows him. His warmth and generosity has set the culture for the shop today.”
Last May, in recognition of the bakery’s 60th anniversary, the team threw a block party welcoming 10,000 street-goers to enjoy games, live music, a strolling bagel mascot and free bagels. And, in a classic example of ‘giving back’, the profits that day – $61,000 – were donated to the Foundation of Stars, supporting pediatric research in Quebec.
Party or not, the shop is a favourite destination for locals, devoted customers who traverse the city and sometimes international borders, as well as tour groups learning about its history while munching on plump, hand-rolled bagels. “We’ve morphed into a tourism hotspot. It’s surreal to listen to tour guides tell our story,” Vince Morena remarks.
Watching rollers twirl strips of springy dough into perfect circles destined for a wood-burning oven is an impressive display of manual dexterity. Working at breakneck speed, a staggering 12,000 bagels are turned out each day. Morena can roll with the deftest of them, setting a TV record of 50 bagels per minute, documented by The Great Canadian Food Show.
Along with any longtime institution come the anecdotes. Morena tells of a former resident of sorts – “the Phantom of the Opera” – who lived in the shop’s basement for 20 years. “He made a deal with Lewkowicz where he could stay, so long as he’d start the fire up in the morning for the workers.”
And then there are the legendary customers: Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen were regulars, and Celine Dion has shown up. William Shatner also has a bagel habit.The bakery even made Anthony Bourdain’s radar. He featured the popular Montreal food and tourism attraction in his TV series No Reservations and The Layover. Morena appreciates the clear correlation between television exposure and brand recognition, as evidenced by social media response. “Following that kind of publicity, our web lights up!”
Despite the growing buzz, the Morenas are staying humble. “The business is getting bigger and bigger; we’re adding structure, but we’re still running it like a family a business,” he says.In its 60th year, the brand relies heavily on tradition. Though it’s challenging to keep up with booming demand and maintain an artisanal, hand-over-machine quality, the team behind the bagels is committed to “keeping it simple” for as long as they can. And to that we say: Long life, St-Viateur Bagel.