Growing up today, you may not know the Mile End institution Boulangerie Clarke, but you’d likely know Clarke Café in Pointe-Saint-Charles: Home of the sangwich, a simple yet reliable purveyor of Italian imports, goods, and coffee, it’s the reincarnation of the OG landmark, originally opened by Clarke Café’s owner Frank Servedio’s grandfather, Salvatore Servedio, in the Mile End in 1980.
My grandfather was a hard-working guy... My grandmother, meanwhile, would work at the cash with my aunt in her arms as a baby.
Baked in history
“When Boulangerie Clarke started, they’d do bread for restaurants and cakes— they used to do so many cakes in the 80s and 90s—for the Italian community, but the big box stores killed that a bit.”
As larger grocery stores took over in Boulangerie Clarke’s market, they moved into being a sandwich shop more than anything. Selling cold cuts, the business naturally grew into line-ups for big sandwiches set in great bread, served quickly by friendly staff, and almost everything on the menu was $5 or under.
His grandparents, understandably, spent a lot of time in that bakery.
“My grandfather was a hard-working guy; even after my dad took over, he would still come and give us a hand. If someone called in sick, he’d come in and help out.”
“My grandmother, meanwhile, would work at the cash with my aunt in her arms as a baby. They were of the community there, a lot of Italians and Portuguese working in the Garment District making clothing, socks, whatever.”
I probably made over a million sandwiches in my lifetime.
Ending one era, starting another
Frank Servedio’s grandfather came from the Bari region of Italy in the 1970’s after travelling for work in Venezuela. Arriving in Canada, originally a carpenter, he opened up Boulangerie Clarke in 1980 and ran it until 2015, when landlords Danny Lavy and Stephen Shiller bought the building.
“I didn’t see that coming, I thought I’d work there forever,” Servedio says. “I started working at the bakery around ’99, maybe 2000. I worked there for fifteen years, working front of house making sandwiches. I probably made over a million sandwiches in my lifetime.”
“It made me realize that you can never get comfortable. All good things must come to an end, and it made me refocus. Now with Clarke Café, when I run my business, I’m always trying to improve it.”
That was the moment when Servedio’s father Damiano, who originally came into the family bakery business when he was 18 as its baker, could make his exit and make room for Frank to strike out on his own—Frank’s father had done his time.
“The bakery business is nuts, it’s such a tough business because you’re working overnight, from 2am to 2pm… when I told him I wanted to start Clarke Café, he said ‘I’ll support you, but I want nothing to do with it,’ but now he’s here more than me,” Frank says.
When we first started Clarke Café, I would cook in the morning, and then I’d make sandwiches. For the first nine months of the business, I’d work seven days a week, fourteen hours a day.
Our identity’s about community and family, where you can have a good lunch and not break the bank. We want to be part of where we are; the bakery was where it was for 35 years, and hopefully we’ll be here for just as long.
True to roots
Frank grew up in Lasalle, but spent more of his childhood and adolescence in Mile End, eating his way through the neighbourhood with his father, and meeting people from all over.
“(Back in the Mile End) we had some really educated colleagues who got me into movies and music that I wouldn’t normally be exposed to, and I learned a lot. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done at Clarke Café—the vibe in the late 90s and early 2000s made me appreciate culture and the restaurant industry.”
True to roots, “we were on Clark and Saint-Viatuer and were a part of that working class community, so when I opened my Clark Café, I wanted everyone who came in to feel comfortable, and it’s part of its own working-class community today.”
“I would never feel comfortable looking someone in the eyes and say ‘here’s a $30 sandwich,’ I just want to be part of here. We don’t want to be a trendy place that’s only around for five years. When I started working at Boulangerie Clarke, it was $4.”
“Our identity’s about community and family, where you can have a good lunch and not break the bank. We want to be part of where we are; the bakery was where it was for 35 years, and hopefully we’ll be here for just as long.”
“That’s how you do it. Just creating a good community place where everybody feels comfortable coming.”
“Pointe-Saint-Charles is the perfect neighbourhood. There’s so many easy ways to get here, Old Montreal isn’t far away, Griffintown, Saint-Henri, Verdun—I’m surprised there isn’t more.”
That’s how you do it. Just creating a good community place where everybody feels comfortable coming.
What we do, we do well, and it’s a consistent product. It’s a small menu, but what you get is good.
Deceptively simple, definitely delicious
“When we first started Clarke Café, I would cook in the morning, and then I’d make sandwiches. For the first nine months of the business, I’d work seven days a week, fourteen hours a day.”
“What we do, we do well, and it’s a consistent product. It’s a small menu, but what you get is good.”
Porchetta, sausage, grilled chicken is all done in house with recipes of Frank’s own creation. “We’ve definitely upgraded in terms of quality since the old place… I had a lot of conversations with butchers who’ve been doing it for a long time, and through my experience working in restaurants (specifically La Campagnol,a which also started as a sandwich shop), asking a lot of talented people for advice, I learned how.”
As for the sangwiches? “Bread is the most important ingredient. We’ve formed a good relationship with a local bakery,” Frank says, but won’t mention the name as it’s a pseudo-trade secret—many of Montreal’s Italian cafés, restaurants, and even bakeries might stock it.
Everyone’s who in the industry, they’re in it because they love it. It’s hard to get out once you’re in.
That was then, this is now
Even with its new larger location on Shearer in the Pointe and a second location in Kirkland, Clarke Café however, as Montrealers know it today, isn’t necessarily the beginning of a new sangwich dynasty.
“When people ask if I want my son to take over, I always tell them no. He can do what he wants, but I work so hard so I can give him the opportunity to do whatever he wants,” Frank admits.
“The restaurant business is tough. It’s a really hard business, the margins are tight, and you need to be really busy or else you’re not going to make it. It’s stressful, you’re always thinking about work, and you’re never not working.”
“Everyone’s who in the industry, they’re in it because they love it. It’s hard to get out once you’re in.”