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Le Commensal S.E.C. (Photo by Alana Riley)
Le Commensal S.E.C. (Photo by Alana Riley)

Report on Small Business Magazine

Taking the "all you can eat" out of buffet dining Add to ...

In the mood for a light meal? Grab a tray, choose what you want to eat, and Le Commensal will tell you just how light your lunch is—down to the gram. This small chain of vegetarian, health-conscious restaurants is taking the “all you can eat” out of buffet dining. Customers pay by the weight of the food. It’s a sales tactic that helps prevent waste and allows diners to control their portions. And it’s just one example of how healthy eating has formed the cornerstone of Le Commensal’s brand identity.

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From its roots as a restaurant founded by a couple of Montreal hippies looking to share recipes in 1977, Le Commensal has expanded in Greater Montreal, has moved into Ontario, and has a booming business making ready-to-eat meals with more nutritional punch than the typical frozen dinner. Owned for a number of years by the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation—the charitable arm of the family that founded Vidéotron—its mission is to bring quality, healthy vegetarian food to the marketplace. Pierre-Marc Tremblay acquired the business in 2006. “I had a vision for the future,” Tremblay says, “where people’s eating habits would evolve to healthier tastes.”

Even before he bought Le Commensal, Tremblay was heralding the importance of nutrition to build brand awareness of his Pacini chain of restaurants. In May, 2005, in partnership with the University of Montreal Hospital Centre, Pacini became the first chain in North America to eliminate artificial trans fats from its menus.

Tremblay and his team have worked to develop Le Commensal’s brand, launching a number of new products. He’s particularly proud of their line of soups, which have a 73% share of the market for refrigerated soups in Quebec. Le Commensal meals have no artificial colours or flavours, and they usually have no preservatives (its wine is one exception). But Tremblay insists he’ll never produce a menu that’s totally fat-free or salt-free—he’ll make his meals as healthy as possible, but “taste comes first.”—Susan Krashinsky

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Year the first Commensal restaurant opened on Rue St-Denis in Montreal: 1977 Le Commensal restaurants opened since 1977 (7 in Quebec, 1 in Ontario): 8 Supermarkets that sell Le Commensal packaged products: 1,175 Le Commensal’s sales in 2010: $20 million Employees: 227 Canadians who defined themselves as vegetarian in 2004: 8%

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Lessons Learned

1. Putting food on other people’s tables is much harder than you think. There are thickets of regulations and laws governing food companies. Because of the high level of concentration in the grocery store industry, clients are few and powerful. The competition—much of it with large corporations—is fierce. “To survive as a small operation in that environment, you have to innovate constantly,” Tremblay says. “Innovate, innovate, innovate. But innovate within your abilities. Become a specialist in your little field. “

2. Just because you make the food doesn’t mean you’re the arbiter of taste. “Follow the client. Often, we project our personal vision on to the client—but they have their own vision,” Tremblay says. He cites the example of a company that launched a line of refrigerated prepared soups that reduced salt drastically. The flavour was flat, and they didn’t sell well. So while Tremblay’s vision is to create healthy food, he also tries to find a balance between healthy ingredients and taste. After all, it doesn’t matter how healthy the food is, if people won’t eat it.

3. Learn meditation. “We live in a world that’s moving faster and faster. There are so many things for an entrepreneur to think about, and if you never stop, you won’t see everything,” says Tremblay, who has been studying meditation techniques for years. “You must be able to slow down in order to get perspective. That’s helped me enormously.”



Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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