“No one else did it the way we did, it was beautiful,” said restaurant owner Marco Russo
Prevailing over tough circumstances is nothing new for Bocadillo, a family business born from the fires of political upheaval, migration and perseverance. What started 13 years ago as an unprecedented effort to bring Venezuelan cuisine to the Montreal scene, has proven — in the middle of the pandemic — to be a triumph for Venezuelan entrepreneurship.
At 6918 St-Laurent Blvd., the doors to Bocadillo Bistro are closed for the day. The lights inside the restaurant are off and the occasional passer-by stops to glance at the immense and colourful menu pasted on the restaurant’s front window. The inside is a scene of patriotic elegance, composed of Venezuelan art on the walls, and wooden tables scattered across the length of the large establishment, clean and intact.
Across from one of the tables sits Marco Russo, the owner of it all. He speaks with ease and patience, in his native tongue of Spanish.
“We owned a flower shop, back in ‘78 I think it was, in Las Mercedes,” he recalls.
The scene conjured by Marco Russo is one of nostalgia — what used to be the Venezuelan capital’s commercial centre; a beautiful scene of bustling businesses and life.
“My father owned an Italian restaurant there too,” adding, “for about 35 odd years, my aunts were the cooks and it was very successful.”
Success for the family businesses lasted through the 80s and 90s, then in the 2000s it was Russo and his wife, Laura Uzcategui de Russo, who were continuing the legacy. But political turmoil in Venezuela soon upended stability for many businesses, including theirs.
It was the time of the nation’s socialist revolution, when the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1999 changed the face of small and large Venezuelan businesses alike. The socialist fever for nationalization overtook many industries, and private businesses were put under pressure by the Chavista administration.
“There was so much insecurity, and not just economic,” sighs Russo. “The government had these committees in place, they’d close businesses at will and you’d have to pay them to let you open, It became difficult to even exist.”
The turning point came in 2008. Russo nonchalantly describes in detail the everyday dangers he faced amid the social unrest of the country. “I was mugged several times, kidnapped once, until finally the danger affected one of my kids and that’s when I knew things had gotten too ugly, and we left,” Russo recalls.
They came to Canada in search of better opportunities; their story reflecting that of Venezuelan immigrants across the globe. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 4.6 million Venezuelan nationals fled the country between 2016 and 2019 alone.
Meanwhile, the idea for Bocadillo came at a time when Venezuelan food was far from a Montreal staple.
“Like all beginnings it was very difficult, we thought we’d close. People didn’t understand Venezuelan cuisine, they didn’t even know what an arepa was,” he said, explaining that in those days the restaurant would make a mere $20 to $30 daily.
Arepas are the star dish of this Montreal restaurant. Made from pre-cooked corn flour, this traditional food is shaped and cooked into a semi-flat circle, which is then cut in half and stuffed with a variety of fillings such as minced meat, cheese or black beans. It has been, as Russo calls it, “the comfort food” of Venezuelan people since pre-Columbian times, and it is considered to be a staple of the likes of bread, being served for breakfast, lunch or dinner across the country.
The main counter at Bocadillo’s sister location, nestled in 3677 St-Laurent Blvd., is a mosaic of beautiful photographs showing customers what different kinds of iconic arepas actually look like.
Temmy Mthethwa, a second-year Biology student at Concordia University, said this particular Bocadillo location was a fantastic first-taste of Venezuelan culture.
“It definitely made me want to try more Venezuelan food, I’m looking forward to seeing what else they’ve got to offer.” Mthethwa said that the arepa in particular was a real change from the cuisine of her home country, Eswatini.
This kind reaction is not unusual. Russo explains with a smile on his face that it was the wonders of Venezuelan cuisine which saved the restaurant from going under in its early days. Just two weeks before they were supposed to close they received a review in the Montreal Gazette, “The writer liked our food so much we told us he’d come back on the weekend.”
The article, which included a raving review and photographs of Russo’s food, brought a stream of customers to Bocadillo that very weekend. “That review was our guardian angel, it saved us,” he laughs.
From then on, the restaurant took flight. Creating not only a popular demand for Venezuelan food, but also establishing itself as a cultural embassy for Venezuelan art, music and performances. The business made a tradition of booking Venezuelan artists to perform throughout the year.
Russo pulls out his phone, looking for a video to show what the artistic spectacles used to be like before the pandemic. He presses play and a symphony of drums, maracas, harps and guitars begin to blast from the phone’s speaker. The video shows the restaurant we’re sitting in, packed with customers dancing to traditional Venezuelan music on the main floor.
The events would gather anywhere from 150 to 180 people, with customers frequently coming in from the street to see what all the commotion was about.
“For Canadian people, those kinds of experiences were incredible. It’s something they would only have seen on vacations or in movies,” said Russo with excitement. “No one else did it the way we did, it was beautiful.”
For now, COVID-19 restrictions have left Bocadillo Bistro unable to host such events, but Russo’s memories of the glittering potential are enough to fuel his optimism.
“We were always happy to let artists express themselves here. It was an investment we really wanted to make, and hope to make again in the future someday.” Russo adds.
Although Bocadillo’s Little Italy location cannot currently show its usual flare, Russo said their St-Laurent branch — which will reach its 13th anniversary soon — is still thriving because of how unique it is.
“At this stage our business is very well established. Even with the pandemic we can keep going,” he said confidently.
Although the business has taken its share of impact from the pandemic, Russo said they have persevered by looking towards the future.
“It’s a shame what’s happened to many restaurants because of this pandemic, but we have to be willing to reinvent ourselves,” said Russo. “You can have a traditional way of doing things, but you also have to be able to evolve and change.”
Bocadillo’s origin story and their path to success is a ray of victory for Venezuelan entrepreneurs across Montreal, and leaves little doubt as to the restaurant’s ability to persevere and triumph through these difficult times.
Photographs by Gabriela Villarroel