08 Jun 2020
David leans against his café window once more. The quarantine has forced him to close up for a time, but he still sees his clients around the historic district. It is at the corner of St-Vincent and Ste-Amable, the pretty street with its Instagram-famous red flowers, where Olimpico is buried away. And we say “buried away” with all the warmth and Italian perfection that you can expect from this Montreal business. Here, you will find David and possibly the best coffee in the city.
“I must confide something in you. When we decided to reopen, I was a little afraid, you see. But, I told the boss not to worry, and that the customers would come. Of course, on opening day, I felt so much pressure on my shoulders,” he said in a low voice. “But, when I opened my curtains – I live just across the street, you know – I saw a line of 10-15 people waiting. You don’t know how I felt in that moment! I was truly happy, and I knew everything was going to work out when everyone showed up!” The emotion in his voice was palpable, and even if David had never lived in the historic neighbourhood, you could still feel the love he’s put into the café, as well as the love he gets back from the community. He also carries out his daily routine around the neighbourhood and is well known in the area. “When I go somewhere, my friends all know my order. Aperol Spritz in summer, red wine in winter, and if you have tartare at your restaurant, you don’t even need to bring me the menu!” David laughs. He worries for his friends who haven’t yet reopened their restaurants or bars, and understandably so. “I hope that things are going okay for them. They really bring the fun to the neighbourhood.”
“When we decided to reopen, I stopped visiting my family, and it’s...” he hesitates for a minute before continuing. “It has been very hard, because I’m so close to my family. But my grandmother is 87, and my father and step-mother have had cancer, and so it just wouldn’t be responsible, even for my mother. So I spoke to them from the other side of the road or with a window separating us. But I strongly felt that I needed to reopen. It was important to many people.” David isn’t worried, but he is cautious and applying the necessary health measures to protect those close to him. Besides his refusal to use the wait-and-see method, his Italian roots, social nature, and joyous demeanor have all allowed him to generate a client base that is so happy to see him again. “The first day, we had loud music playing, it was a real party!” When Olimpico returned, you could feel the neighbourhood breathe easily once more. “This place really is a European café, in the fact that people take their time here, they meet up to interact, and I can put my customers in contact, expanding their social network. Of course, it’s a bit different in the current context, but it’s still important to keep that spirit,” David emphasizes.
In Old Montreal, almost everyone knows David, the barista. And conversely, he knows his clientele very well. “I get my usuals, the early birds come in at 7:05 a.m., then the crowd at 8:30 a.m. comes in before going into the office, and then at 10 a.m. for break! There is the wave after lunch, and finally the “floaters”, who don’t work and have more free time, rolling in during the afternoon. On the weekend, we get soccer fans and people on walks around town.” His normal routine that he held before COVID was, understandably, shaken up a little bit. But his usuals still drop by, even in Olimpico’s “take-out only” form, and always on time. They line up and as each one reaches the counter, David is able to converse with them, all while preparing their coffee. “It is part of my job. I love making the people feel special. I remember their first names, how they take their coffee, and the conversation subjects they like to talk about. It’s not that hard for me, because I love doing it,” he explains to us, as he keeps an attentive eye on the order window, and has been for the duration of the interview. He has not gotten rusty during these two months of closure, and he still welcomes each guest with the same care. Taking the business into his hands, giving it out to the community in his neighbourhood and operating under the “endure and adapt” credo is in the very DNA of the Olimpico brand that David has masterfully harnessed, resulting in a real recipe for success.
Let’s be clear, David’s closeness with his clientele is no doubt due in equal measure to his frankness and his irresistible coffee. “Oh yeah! I don’t like people who lack common sense, or those who aren’t considerate to others. When I see something, I’m going to speak up. For example, once a gentleman asked me for some sugar, and then after tasting it, he still wanted more. So he decided to just help himself from my sugar bowl, putting the dirty spoon back into the sugar once he was done! I told him “Hey, that’s not gonna fly here! You wouldn’t want someone to do that to you? Don’t do that to others!” But he didn’t take it hard, he apologized and then everyone laughed in the end.” David has thousands of other anecdotes and he recognizes that it’s just his way of being himself. “When you come to my place, the café, I get this sense of hospitality, and I want to create a good experience for everyone. Just one discussion or a small bit of attention can completely change a person’s mood.” If it makes your day when David remembers how you take your coffee, here is how he drinks his own: an espresso with a quart of sugar.
When he went to work at the St-Viateur location, which remained open, he was still himself. “Of course I wasn’t going to change who I was just because I was under a different roof. The managers are my friends, but we have never worked together before. I think that at the beginning they were surprised, but I was still very respectful in any case, and I was very at ease in the café, so everything turned out well in the end. We are all characters here at Olimpico!” But during his experience away from Old Montreal, David was very moved to find that his old clients followed him! With the St-Vincent location closed, they all came to find him at St-Viateur. “Even my early birds! It was really touching. It really says a lot to me. And now, they’re back with me again in Old Montreal,” the barista rejoices. There’s no doubt. Not even for a second. His character comes from the sheer level of heart that he shows the public and from the coffee he prepares. “On Christmas, people stop me in the street to give me holiday wishes, or else some come by here to offer me a small gift. I am truly grateful. My clients give me so much, and I try to give back some of that goodness to this beautiful community.”
“I’m lucky, I get along with everyone,” David relates to us, as he pulls back his long hair. “Since I’m really close to my grandmother and the rest of my family, I’m used to interacting with the 60-plus crowd, and I love our seniors. I had a rather conservative education and we see eye to eye on several issues. For the younger generation, I know what they like and I was their age not too long ago...” David smiles, clarifying that he kind of splits the difference at his current age of late 39. He jokes about his Italian customers, who tell him that they feel at home, putting a hand to his puffed-out chest and congratulating himself on this real mark of quality. He admits to not expecting to see so many French and Italians in the Vieux. “There are also the professionals – businessmen and women, and those working at the courthouse. They all appreciate a moment of relaxation here during their long workday.” he mentions, happy to see that the court will soon reopen. Life is slowly getting back to normal, little by little, due to governmental measures, and David is completely ready for it.
In Montreal, it is rare to find a café that has been in business for half a century, seen a steadily growing success, and united several generations of clients. Olimpico on St-Viateur is celebrating its 50-year anniversary and the Old-Montreal location, being the newer of the two, its 4-year. However, it is hardly necessary to date them as such, since they fit nearly naturally in the landscape of Montreal cafés as some of the best around. “It has been an ordeal for me,” David admits. “But I am a man who loves a challenge! I have been a barista since I was in my twenties. My cousin taught me everything I know, showing me how to make cappuccinos the right way. Like they do in Italy. And that’s not a skill that just everyone knows how to do. After that I made pizzas and I got very good at it, but I would get bored with the people. When Olimpico opened up in Old Montreal, one of my friends heard that they were searching for someone to run this place. I met the Vanelli family, and just like that, I was here!” David drinks in the sight of his café with a blazing look of pride in his eyes. And justifiably so. He reached where he is today through his brilliant passion and teamwork.