Joseph Cohen moves fluidly behind the food counter of his unimposing shop nestled on Queen Mary Road in Montreal's Snowdon neighbourhood — preparing schnitzel sandwiches, ladling out matzo ball soup, stuffing cookies and potato knishes into take-out bags, all while working the cash register and chatting up customers.
His one-man show at Cantor Bakery has become routine for him, but Cohen says a steep rent increase is forcing him to hang up his hat.
"It's not just a regular increase in the rent, it's a new idea of completely changing. The whole street is becoming very expensive at the moment," he said.
After more than 60 years, the neighbourhood mainstay will be closing its doors at the end of June.
"It's sad that we have to close a place like this down," said Cohen, saying dozens of loyal customers appreciate the old-fashioned atmosphere and the homemade hot meals and pastries.
"I really worked hard to make it what it is today, but I guess money is stronger than will or memories."
Nothing like a good schnitzel
The dépanneur-style Cantor's on Queen Mary Road is the last of its kind.
What was once a franchise of more than 60 shops in the city since its inception in the 50s has dwindled to just Cohen's location and a large wholesale facility in the Saint-Michel neighbourhood, which has no dine-in option and primarily sells baked goods.
Customer Eli Negreanu visited Cohen's small shop for the first time on Thursday. He said he'd been to many Cantor's as a young boy, but he only discovered this location when he heard the news of it closing down.
"I wanted to catch it before it disappeared," said Negreanu, a self-described history buff and schnitzel connoisseur of sorts.
He bought hummus, a Jamaican patty and, of course, Cohen's fabled schnitzel sandwich.
"I grew up on schnitzel, so I know what a good schnitzel should taste like," he said. The experience was bittersweet for Negreanu.
"[It] was delicious ... I'm hoping [Cohen] will be around so I can buy more schnitzel because I just discovered it now," he lamented, adding he'll try to visit the shop at least two or three times a week until it closes.
'It's not over for me,' says owner
Rosa Lannes is a long-time Cantor's customer — but not always of her own volition.
"My kid goes to daycare nearby and she'll get anybody who goes to pick her up to buy a snack here," she said, noting she frequents the shop most days of the week.
The loyal customer said she's disappointed the shop will be closing and will be "tempted to stock up on sandwiches" in order to cope.
Lannes said she wants a local shop to replace Cantor's — one she can support, and "not a big chain."
Negreanu shares Lannes's sentiments.
"I'm sad when I see that a lot of the small retailers are disappearing," he said. "It's sad because it's part of the community."
While Cohen may be closing up shop on Queen Mary Road, that doesn't mean he's out of the game. He's in the process of finding a space to open up a new bakery and deli called Schnitzel's — affectionately named after the popular sandwiches to which he owes much of his success.
"It's not over for me … it's only going to get better," said Cohen.
"[My next location] is going to have a concept where it's going to make people very comfortable, it's affordable ... and everybody's welcome."