Poutine and Politics

Poutine and Politics



William a.k.a. "Billy" Gogas, co-owner of Lafayette Hot Dog
1870 St-Catherine East, Montreal (514) 522-5028


William a.k.a. "Billy" Gogas is a trilingual Greco-Canadian from Shawinigan with a degree in Political Science and a shrewd business sense who dishes out some of the best poutine smoked meat in Montreal. Sounds unlikely? We're just getting warmed up.

 During a recent interview, the co-owner of Lafayette Hot Dog in the heart of the Montreal's Village shared a wealth of insight into what it means to be a successful restaurant owner in today's sluggish economy as well as into the financial, political and cultural-linguistic struggles that many small business owners have to overcome.

Broad-shouldered and burly, with a graying beard and a strong jaw, Gogas is a tough guy with a heart of gold. Friendly but blunt, disarmingly straight-forward, he has the tired yet bright eyes of someone who works like a dog, but is no stranger to happiness. He also has a sharp analytical mind, an impressive grasp of local and international politics, and could probably teach circles around your average university business professor. Sometimes, you can't judge a book by its cover; other times, a book gets outfitted with the wrong dust jacket altogether.

Now married with a young child and a new baby, Gogas has been working in the restaurant business since he was 14 years old, though, as it turns out, not entirely by choice. The son of Greek-immigrant parents, Gogas started working at his father's restaurant in Grand-Mère, Shawinigan, where he was born and raised. Growing up, the restaurant business was not so much a calling as a way of life. "My father used to say a restaurant is like a prison with the door open" explained Gogas, "it takes up so much of your time and energy that you can never really leave".

As a teenager, Gogas learned how backbreaking and unforgiving the restaurant business could be, so after working for the family restaurant as well as a few others, he decided to pursue a different path. After attending John Abbott College then Concordia University where he obtained a degree in political science, he hoped to pursue a career that would enable him to travel and see the world. With that in mind, he tried applying for the Foreign Civil Service, then CSIS, or even briefly considered applying to the SQ, but openings were scarce, the timing was bad, and it just wasn't in the cards. In the back of his mind, the restaurant business was still looming, and it seemed like to obvious next choice.

 The decision to get back into the restaurant business after University was initially supposed to be a short-term measure, but after a while, reality hit home. "I'm Generation X - we think we can do anything; but eventually, you gotta wake up" explains Gogas. After several years of managing other people's restaurants and learning from their mistakes, he ultimately decided it was time to run his own place and started looking for joint venture opportunities. In 2002, he found just the opportunity he was looking for in Lafayette Hot Dog, a family-run restaurant that has been around for over 35 years.


 Granted, becoming a co-owner and co-manager of your stereotypical "greasy spoon" in the heart of the Village might seem like a strange business investment to some, but not to Gogas, who recognized both the establishment's longstanding success and its long-term potential.  Gogas was also drawn to the fact that Lafayette's is an independently operated, family-run business, not a franchise or a chain. "When it's not really yours, when you don't have any real control, you just can't be as invested", he says. He was also keenly aware of the strong work ethic that such businesses usually entail and to which he largely attributes Lafayette's success over the decades.

 Lafayette's is a homey place where the waitresses always remember their customers - either by name or by menu preferences - and where you're always greeted with a warm smile. Excellent customer service is a key-component to their ongoing success - as is ensuring customer satisfaction. This is where it's important to have a manager on site, says Gogas, who has been known to pull double-shifts behind the counter.  "We [he and his co manager] are here to solve problems. If a customer's not happy, we give him a free meal... whatever it takes" says Gogas, who further explains that even though his staff has the leeway to make these decisions themselves, they often aren't comfortable doing so, and having a manager on site helps smooth things over. This also helps keep the staff in line and operating at peak efficiency, which in turn enables them keep to their costs down and their menu prices low.


Price is another important factor, says Gogas, explaining that in today's economy, everyone is struggling - including his customers - and that providing good value helps establishments such as his stay afloat. He also explains that providing fast, friendly service and flexible menu options, such as substituting ingredients, make these establishments stand apart from all the McDonalds and other impersonal fastfood joints out there.

When asked what the greatest challenge he has to face as a restaurant owner is, Gogas is unequivocal: "Politics. Politics and corruption." Armed with a degree in Political Science, Gogas knows a thing or two about how the system works - or, in his opinion, doesn't work. He blames political corruption, high taxes and mismanagement for the state of Quebec's economy and its repercussions on consumers and business owners alike. He also points a finger at the new POS (point of sale) software imposed by the government. Meant to prevent tax evasion, the new system was a pain to implement and can really slow things down, particularly during the lunch rush. To make matters worse, this past year was particularly difficult due to a number of factors, explains Gogas. He cites the sluggish economy, the numerous student protests that bogged down the city core, the never-ending road work which made traffic a nightmare, and the changes to the fireworks schedule this past summer, all of which had a detrimental impact on tourism. "Montreal was blacklisted." Explains Gogas. "Who's gonna wanna come here?" Though his restaurant managed to pull through, he was forced to let go of no less than 8 employees and take on double shifts to pick up the slack.

Gogas also explains that language issues are a source of headaches in the restaurant industry. Growing up in the heart of francophone Quebec, he frequently witnessed and was sometimes the target of language and cultural-based discrimination. Today, even though he runs a French establishment with francophone waiters and all-French menus, he says he's still occasionally the target of language-based discrimination. "I'll be speaking to a customer in English and someone will say 'aye, retournes-chez toi, le Grec' [go home, Greek], and I'll say 'I'm from Shawinigan, and I speak French better than you, why don't you go home?'"

When asked what his plans are for the future, Gogas replies that he's seriously thinking about leaving Quebec, perhaps of going to Ontario. Between the stagnant economy, the corrupt politics and the construction situation, Montreal has become an increasingly difficult place to survive for small business owners, and many restaurants have gone under in the past few years. When asked how he manages to stay in business when faced with such insurmountable odds: "Dumb luck", he replies. And though I suspect the real answer must be far more complex, I can't help but admire his modesty as I settle down to enjoy my Poutine. 


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Lafayette Hot Dog
1870 St-Catherine East
(in fron of Papineau Metro)
(514) 522-5028

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