Vive le dépanneur, Quebec’s very convenient stores
Written byTaylor Ireland
Quebec is a special and unique place for a lot of reasons, the most obvious being that French is the majority language. But among the other intriguing things that set the place apart, the dépanneur would be near the top of the list.
What’s a dépanneur? Well, thanks to the fact the word is now in English dictionaries, we have a handy definition. Oxford says: “Canadian (especially in Quebec), a small shop or convenience store.”
That’s a small and convenient description for what is a phenomenon in Quebec’s distinct consumer culture. Dépanneurs – or simply deps – have become “mirrors of Quebec society,” as one association of dep owners describes the stores.
Corner stores, or convenience stores are a common feature of virtually all villages, towns and cities in Canada. But what sets Quebec deps apart is they are the neighbourhood-based places where many, if not most Quebecers buy their beer, and to a lesser extent, wine and other drinks with alcohol.
This, of course, is a game-changer for people who like the convenience and efficiency of purchasing their preferred beverage a short walk or drive from home. Not only that, but deps are allowed to sell beer and wine from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m..
Deps proved particularly useful in the past few months when the government-operated liquor stores staged several days of strikes. While deps do not offer the same wide choice of wine as the government outlets, people at least were not left wine-less during the disruption.
Of course, deps don’t just sell alcoholic beverages. Most are like mini-supermarkets selling all kinds of products from canned goods to cleaning items to lottery tickets and ice cream. This aspect of providing a kind of last minute service for those who need something for a meal or a party, or have run out of toilet paper or toothpaste, or even want fireworks for a celebration, explains why the stores are called dépanneurs. In French, the word dépanner means to help out, originally referring to the break-down of a car on the road.
The term dépanneur was popularized by the first person to open such a store, according to a 2010 book by journalist Judith Lussier on the history of the dep. Paul-Emile Maheu had been operating a failing grocery store in Montreal. In 1970, the Quebec government changed the law on commercial hours, allowing stores with a small number of employees to stay open at night and on Sundays. This was back in the days when conservative religious values had been keeping the cap on shopping hours in the province. Maheu scaled down his staff and stock and put up a sign saying Dépanneur Saint-Zotique.
At about the same time, a change in the province’s liquor laws allowed deps to sell beer and some wine as long as they also offered a certain fixed percentage or value of food supplies. These combined changes launched a boom known as the “golden age of depanneurs” which saw at its peak some 10,000 deps operating in the province. Since then, the number has declined to about 7,000, due mainly to competition from big grocery stores whose opening hours have been expanded.
Still, the dep is a winning formula. Quebec’s largest dep chain, Couche Tard (meaning someone who stays up late – the company logo is a sleepy-eyed owl) is an extraordinary success story. Starting with a base of 11 stores in Quebec City, founder Alain Bouchard has “cornered the market” on convenience stores in Canada, the United States and around the world. Through a collection of chains it’s acquired, Couche Tard owns some 16,000 convenience stores in total.
Recently the company announced it plans to open 200 stores annually in promising markets in North America and the 14 other countries where it already owns chains.
Deps in Quebec have been the launch pad for Couche Tard’s global empire, but they are also the entry point for many entrepreneurs from afar seeking to get established in Quebec. This is particularly true of people from Asia, who account for about half of all owners of deps or franchisees in the province. In my neighbourhood, of the four deps within two a two-block walk, three are operated by people of Asian heritage.
It’s said that Asian operators have “saved” the traditional Quebec dep, with their willingness to work long hours as a family, a situation made particularly acute by the general shortage of workers in Quebec.
Other dep owners have looked at various ways to attract customers in the face of increased competition. Some have gone big into offering specialty beers, many offer fresh coffee and pastries, some sell specialty ethnic snacks, some even have small lunch counters.
Like in any businesses, convenience stores have their ups and downs. But Quebecers love their deps. There’s even a movement afoot to declare a “national day of the dépanneur.” Should that happen, we know where to get the beer to celebrate.