Don’t let the Van Houtte corporate name fool you. With the numerous Van Houtte cafés located around Montreal, it may be easy to mistake the small franchise tucked below La Cité as just part of the larger corporation. However, like a piece of art, this café radiates with the personality of its owners. When I first stopped by, I was intrigued by the owners’ positivity and general disposition. In interacting with customers and with each other, they seemed to possess a certain glow. Through my regular morning visits, I quickly learned that the source of that glow was their deep passion and pride.
The story behind the café is a fascinating one. All three owners abandoned their professional careers and stable salaries to run it. It all began when Sacha Hajjar, who needed to pay for his degree at Concordia and picked up a few shifts at the Van Houtte café near campus. His passion for coffee began at the age of 16, but his father told him that he needed an academic education. Sacha started with two engineering jobs after graduation before realizing that he was not well suited for the corporate life. He bought the café in 1998 at the age of 23, and has not looked back since. Rosie Hajjar and Carla Hajjar, an accountant and lawyer, did the same shortly after.
At first, it was difficult for me to grasp why they gave up such stable careers for the café. However, their happy demeanour, constant enjoyment, and sincere interactions with customers helped me realize that my original idea of success was incomplete. During my years in school, success was defined based simply on a letter grade. After graduation, the definition of success is hazy and unclear. I found that without conventional metrics to indicate if I was doing a good job, setting goals around my own definition of success became increasingly important.
For Rosie, Sacha, and Carla, success is about being proud and deeply invested in what they do. Like characters in a novel, they complement each other perfectly. Rosie is a nurturer at heart, always offering a big smile and kind words, while her husband Sacha is outspoken and frank. The nurturing words from Rosie mixed with the witty, free-spirited anecdotes from Sacha offer the perfect morning refreshment. Together, they are constantly seeking to improve the experience, because they recognize that the simple things in life—like a warm greeting and muffin—are enough to make a difference in each day.
Through my encounters with the trio, I realized that it is difficult and frightening to follow a passion. When Sacha bought the café, it was running a deficit and many doubted his ability to turn it around. However, my visits made me realize that things tend to work out if passion is incorporated into an action. Although hard work separates the best from the average, passion precludes hard work. While the trio at the café gave up so much and appear to work so hard with long hours at the small café, they are hardly working at all because it is something they love.
Cafés and small businesses like this one—where the passion and personality of the owners are omnipresent—remind me how important it is to do what you love. While students, including myself, are raised in an environment where prestigious grades and honour rolls are motivation enough to do well, I learned from my interactions at that small Van Houtte café that after graduation, passion is a much more powerful force than prestige in becoming the best at what you do.