Thomas Vernis: Meet the Real ‘Tommy’ Behind Montreal’s Beloved New Tommy Café

When Desjardins asked The Main to find a local professional whose work would be inspirational to aspiring entrepreneurs, we were happy to help. In keeping with their desire to inspire and support young people in realizing their own passion projects, we sought to tell the story of a self-made local businessperson who’s taken a creative approach to building their own business, picking up plenty of invaluable insights along the way. And for us, no one else captures this imaginative, inspirational, and experienced entrepreneurial spirit quite like Thomas Vernis

If you’ve ever stumbled into Café Tommy, nestled a few blocks down from the busy Basilica de Notre Dame square, you’ve probably noticed it exudes a kind of charisma. It’s the kind of place that beckons you in off the street and kindly invites you to stay (and we’re not just saying that because of their willing distribution of the wifi code.) If I had to boil it down, I’d probably say this charisma is largely derived from Tommy’s ambiance. And if I had to describe their ambiance, I’d point to their coffee cups, which bear the portrait of a 1950’s caricature who looks like someone straight out of Mad Men.

Cafe Tommy

With your morning coffee, you’re bound to catch the eye of their coffee cup cartoon—the café’s infamous figurehead—tossing back a gin on the rocks whilst looking cheekily back at you as if to say “enjoy that latte girl, you deserve it.” In my mind, that caricature was Tommy. I thought his portrait embodied the laid-back and suave atmosphere of the place, typically bustling with Montreal’s business professionals. That is, until I met the real Tommy: Thomas Vernis.

Vernis sat across from me over coffee one sunny afternoon, and I couldn’t help but notice he was different from the iconic face of the café in every respect bar one. With tattooed arms and a glint in his eye that suggested he was full of ideas, the relatively young business owner looked like the rebellious son of the 1950’s Tommy seen on their coffee cups. However, the longer I talked with him, the more I realized that the charisma, the welcoming atmosphere, and bustle that pulls you in off the street — that’s all the real Tommy.

IMG_6945IMG_6943“It’s always about ambiance for me,” he said as he gestured towards the space Zebulon Perron helped him design earlier this year. “People always ask why we aren’t open earlier — Tommy isn’t open early because people won’t enjoy it from seven to eight. They’re just going to go to the office with their coffee.” As I look down from the top floor into the café, I can’t help but think he’s right. Everything about the café urges you to interact with it. The bleacher seating in the front, the communal tables upstairs, even the friendly baristas weaving in and out to clear tables and chat with customers — and that’s what makes this space special.

Turns out, the man behind Tommy café is no rookie when it comes to the restaurant industry. The Tommy character, the carefully designed space, and the emphasis on ambiance are all part of Vernis’ method of providing a dining ‘experience’ — one he’s used to build a veritable little empire in the Old Port.

Vernis graduated from Hotel management at Lasalle college in 2002, and at the age of twenty, immediately started working as a manager at a popular Montreal restaurant. A few short years later when Vernis was twenty-five, he decided he was ready to venture into the industry on his own, and thus was born Santos, the popular Spanish tapas bar in Old Port. If opening your own business at the age of 25 is hard, opening a hundred-seater bar in Old Montreal is even harder.

“I was so skinny,” he jokes of his first years. “It probably took me three years to get used to it. It was a process of reimbursing investment and gaining maturity.” Luckily, Santos has been booming since its opening in 2007, and Vernis was quickly able to look to his next project. He started working on Dolcetto, an Italian wine bar only a few blocks down the road from Santos, in 2012. To co-ordinate the graphic design and media for these two, NOIR+FLUO was created, but still Vernis was looking for something more.

IMG_7009 IMG_7010As we sat on the top floor of Tommy café, Vernis explained, “When I travel I look for three things: restaurants, bars and cafes.” Having already achieved the first two, opening a café seemed like a natural extension. The café sprang out of Vernis’ passion for coffee, but also his desire to build a neighbourhood spot for the Old Port community that he’s become entrenched in in the last decade. “Old Montreal is seen as a tourist spot. But a lot of people live here too. I thought it was sad that the only place for neighbours to meet was at, what…Starbucks?”

As soon as you walk into the café, you notice Vernis is right. Sure, there’s a sprinkling of tourists who wander down the street from the Basilica, but for the most part Tommy has become a place to meet, work, and relax. Sure, its about the coffee and I’m never one to overlook a good macaroon, but its also about the neighbourhood.

IMG_6972As I was about to leave, feeling a little unaccomplished and on the verge of going to Desjardins to ask how to start a small business myself, I figured I’d have a lot to gain from asking Vernis what advice he would give to young entrepreneurs. “It’s in you to have the entrepreneurial gene,” he insists. But, like most business owners, there is one thing he’d love to go back and tell himself when he was first starting out.

“I would tell myself that, when you open, you need to have a very clear vision of your product,” Vernis says with earnest. Though he knew he wanted Santos to have a fun, communal vibe, his vision for the business didn’t become crystal clear until it was already up and running. “With so many cool places opening now, the market is diluting,” he explains. “What you really need to have is a direction.”

So where do you find this direction? At the end of the day, it’s about understanding what interests you, and building your business around it. With a tone of complete sincerity that comes from having really worked for your success, he adds: “You’ll always be successful if what you do starts from within. I like making people happy, and I enjoy being surrounded by people. If you enjoy what you do… it never really feels like work — it’s passion.”

Inspired by the stories of young entrepreneurs just like Thomas Vernis, Desjardins is taking steps to support both students and young professionals in their own creative business endeavours. Find out how Desjardins takes interest in youth initiatives by helping them achieve their goals in the video below.

Photos by Liz Willcock