Close your eyes, imagine yourself at your favourite coffee shop, and feel the rush of energy after that first shot of caffeine. Now flash back forty years to a time when there were very few cafes, mostly pizzerias and five-star sit-down restaurants. This is what Montreal was like before Garth Gilker opened Café Santropol in 1976 on an inconspicuous street corner in the Plateau. It’s hard to imagine Montreal’s cafe culture as unexciting as it once was.
Celebrating the cafe’s fortieth anniversary, Santropol and its owner Gilker are pioneers of the artisanal and small business scene in Montreal. It was first opened in an alternative to protect the Plateau’s history and landmarks. The stretch of buildings where Santropol is located today were earmarked for demolition in the 1970s; the entire Plateau was being cleared by developers so they could erect new buildings, infrastructure, and parking lots. Against the advice of those around him, Gilker started the cafe as a form of protest.
“After being in Europe for over a year, I thought, there’s no cafes in Montreal and that looks like the perfect corner for a cafe. […] If I open [it], then when they want to […] demolish [the Plateau’s buildings], I can get my clients – if they like the cafe – out in the streets to protest,” said Gilker. It was a “business opened with other business intentions,” an important initiative which, in turn, also ended up creating a living for Gilker and for the cafe’s staff team.
In an economic climate where small business ventures were virtually unheard of, Gilker faced significant difficulties in sustaining his enterprise. These difficulties included that permits didn’t exist yet for small businesses, outdoor terraces were illegal, and there were no pre-existing cafe culture. People asked him: “What are you going to serve, Garth? Fries, soft drinks?” He replied, “Oh, hell no.” Out of his ambition to create something new came a menu of wholesome and affordable sandwiches, that has barely changed since 1976.
Santropol has managed to stay true to its eccentric character and relevant in the face of waves of change.
When the cafe was at the peak of its popularity, it also functioned as a bar, serving as a hub for young people in the Plateau. Although the cafe has since evolved from being a night hangout where students shared drinks and partied, it has kept its relaxed and easy atmosphere. Moreover, Santropol has developed into a community landmark in its own right.
My friend’s mother, who first visited Santropol around 1982 while she was a student at McGill, shared her memories of the cafe with The Daily. “The first time I went to Santropol, I couldn’t take it all in. […] I was so distracted by the small objects and pictures inside.” The furnishings and decor may look worn, but they each add tales and history to the establishment and have been curated and repurposed by Gilker throughout the years. The antique mirror with its chipped white paint on the back wall of the alcove near the entrance, for example, is from Expo 67.
“I love the ambiance in Santropol,” McGill student Audrey Carleton told The Daily. “It’s very cozy, with dark lights and couches and paintings that look like you’ve walked into a very old house with a lot of history and past lives.” Santropol has managed to stay true to its eccentric character and relevant in the face of waves of change. Staying relevant can be intimidating for small businesses, especially since chain coffee shops such as Starbucks have become very popular in the past decade. However, McGill student Mandy Lam told The Daily, “People are more inclined to explore the [cafes] with unique decorations or layout. In comparison to other cafes, Santropol operates more [as] a restaurant. […] However, I enjoy the freedom to roam around the cafe and pick a seat to my liking, and switch around at times.”
Keeping business ethical and sustainable works in favour of Santropol’s efforts to preserve its popularity amidst changes in customers’ tastes.
It’s true that Santropol doesn’t have the regular characteristics of a coffee shop, such as an open space concept, a work atmosphere, and an eye-catching espresso machine. It isn’t where you want to go to churn out that 2,500-word essay due at midnight. In addition, Carleton noted that “Santropol doesn’t have that much space per table. […] You’re not guaranteed the space to spread out all your stuff out on a very small table.” The cross between cafe and restaurant nonetheless provides a nice backdrop for socializing.
When it comes to the food, Santropol continues to purchase ingredients from local farmers and producers, just like it did forty years ago. Keeping business ethical and sustainable works in favour of Santropol’s efforts to preserve its popularity amidst changes in customers’ tastes. “As a vegan and an environmentally-minded person, it is very important to me to buy ethically and locally sourced products,” Carleton told The Daily.
Although the cafe pays attention to sustainable business, however, not many students are aware of this aspect of Santropol. In an age when students and young people decide which cafe to visit using Instagram and other forms of social media, it’s time for Santropol to market itself more effectively to attract visitors beyond its circle of second-generation customers.
For the time being, Santropol will no doubt continue to serve up homey tastes with its famous stacked sandwiches. The menu’s warm familiarity is especially appealing to long-time Santropol’s customers, some of whom came to school in Montreal, moved away, then came back.
In an age when students and young people decide which cafe to visit using Instagram and other forms of social media, it’s time for Santropol to market itself more effectively to attract visitors beyond its circle of second-generation customers.
Santropol is a community hub and establishment which embodies the spirit of the Plateau Mont-Royal. But if it wants to continue to attract students, just being cozy will not be enough: the cafe culture in Montreal is no longer as solemn as it used to be. A new crop of independent coffee shops are springing up left and right and are changing the way we interact with our food by making cafe spaces creative environments suitable for both work and socialization.
Santropol, with its long-standing history and rebellious origins, has transcended generational and seasonal changes with its eccentric yet warm and welcoming atmosphere. As of yet, no other cafe can rival its popularity and its deep roots in the city. Santropol will always be Montreal’s first. However, it is no longer the student hub it once was. As it stands, it’s a place to share a wholesome, hearty meal and memorable conversations. Café Santropol is a time capsule filled with laughs and memories: as you deposit some during each visit, you also retrieve something from its past.