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Montreal's tempest in a beer cup Add to ...

Stéphanie Dagenais didn't mind the Bud Light parasols and cups she was forced to use on her restaurant patio in Montreal's Gay Village.

It's when the brewery started telling her Bud Light had to go in those plastic cups that the manager of Kilo bristled.

"I think it's an aggressive way of doing a sponsorship," said Ms. Dagenais, who was forced to sell the beer under an exclusive deal struck between Labatt, which brews the beer in Canada, and the Gay Village business improvement group.

The business association sold the right to sell beer on 54 new patios along a stretch of Ste-Catherine Street to Labatt, part of a summer-long festival that will see cars banished from the street. Owners say the $100,000 deal came with minimum sales quotas for each bar and restaurant, including a healthy sample of Bud Light.

The deal irks restaurateurs like Ms. Dagenais, who doesn't sell much beer at her small restaurant, best known for tasty desserts, and others who try to tempt palates with fine dining, wine and specialty ales.

A representative of the business group even suggested Bud Light is a popular beer among gays in the United States.

While the banishment of cars from the street has been good for many businesses and great for pedestrians, the sponsorship is triggering a broader tempest in a beer cup over how much control private enterprises should have over public space.

"I guess everything has a price," said Ms. Dagenais, who has several cases of Bud Light collecting dust. "But should it be that way? I don't think so, but it seems to be the way we work in North America."

Christopher DeWolf, a writer for Spacing Montreal, an urban affairs website affiliated with the Toronto magazine Spacing, questions how corporate interests were allowed to take over a public street.

"The closure to cars has created a destination, it creates an ambience that is impossible with cars," Mr. DeWolf said. "But here you have a product foisted on merchants and their customers. It raises the question of how far we should allow private interests to have such control over our public spaces. I think it's a burden on merchants and it restricts public choice."

Bernard Plante, director of the Gay Village business association, said the deal is no different than exclusive beer rights negotiated at other city venues.

He pointed to the privately owned Bell Centre where only Molson beer is sold. Mr. Plante brushed aside complaints about the use of public space, saying his business group is provincially legislated and democratically run.

"These are the decisions we made on behalf of businesses on the street," Mr. Plante said.

Merchants could shed the restraints of sponsorship when the deal runs out after the summer of 2009, he added. But they will have to agree to pay for the street closing, including the cost of street decor and rent to the city for having patios on public streets and sidewalks.

Across North America, summer festivals run by private entities take over parks and streets, often with exclusive rights to allow access and to sell products. Many of the examples are more intrusive than the Montreal beer sponsorship.

In one infamous example in the United States, Washington's National Mall was fenced off for a Pepsi product launch and concert - a 2003 scene described by the Project for Public Spaces as "singularly shocking for its sheer scope and audacity."

Steve Davies, a vice-president of the New York-based group that encourages sensible integration of private business in public spaces, says sponsors get in trouble when they start constraining normal commercial activity.

"It goes too far when they use a sponsorship to start telling dozens of private businesses what to do on public land over an entire summer," Mr. Davies said.

In Montreal, big chunks of major downtown streets are regularly closed to traffic for short periods for everything from the Jazz Festival to Just for Laughs. The Gay Village pedestrian mall will last 2½ months.

Mr. DeWolf said Montreal has one big thing right: The city usually emphasizes free public access, even if access to products like food and drink are often restricted.

Labatt officials could not be reached yesterday. But Jean-Luc Raymond, owner of La Planète, which specializes in international cuisine, says he's noticed a little more flexibility from his brewery representative since the controversy broke out.

Mr. Raymond has managed to get a little more of the fashionable Stella Artois and a little less Bud Light.

"The Bud Light is still languishing," he said, "but I'm not like some others who have to try to sell Bud Light and cheesecake."

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