Lifestyle can be tough when you run a variety store

Dépanneur PMS at the corner of Park Ave. and Villeneuve St.

Montreal Gazette

Feb 7, 2008 – Owning a dépanneur has a big impact on your social life, says Yodh Ubhi, standing behind the counter of Dépanneur PMS at the corner of Park Ave. and Villeneuve St.

“You have none,” Ubhi said.

He’s not kidding. Ubhi’s hours – 14 hours a day, seven days a week – would make most office workers weep.

Every morning, he opens the store at 7 a.m., and works without a break until early afternoon, when his wife arrives with lunch.

Ubhi eats in the store’s basement, a former bank vault, before taking a three-hour siesta.

At 6 p.m., he trudges back upstairs and takes over from his wife, who returns home to make dinner. The day finally ends at midnight, when Ubhi closes shop and returns home to Park Extension.

“It’s not a one-person job,” he said, adding his 18-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son, both students, often come to help.

Ubhi, who came to Montreal from India’s Punjab state in the early 1970s, bought his dépanneur in 2002, after nearly two decades in the textile business.

At $65,000 – a little over $100,000 with inventory – the store was a bargain.

Spacious and well-stocked, it had already undergone a $150,000 renovation in the 1990s when it was part of a small dépanneur chain that ultimately folded.

“I had no experience whatsoever in the dep business,” Ubhi said.

“I saw guys working and thought, ‘Hey, that’s nothing, it’s a piece of cake.’ But it’s not that easy. It’s very demanding. There are long hours. You have to know about your supply, cash flow, customers, your neighbourhood, and on top of that you have to provide good service. If you don’t have even one of these, you’re screwed up. You’re not going to last a year.” At the beginning, Ubhi made mistakes, like offering credit.

“When you’re new, you believe everyone,” he said, but he soon realized he had lost nearly $7,000 to customers who had scammed him out of cigarettes and alcohol.

Now, a cartoon drawing of a gangster with the caption, “No Credit: It’s Time to Pay Up, Sucka!” is displayed prominently at the cash.

These days, things are going more smoothly. Ubhi boasts his customers come from “two or three blocks away,” bypassing several other dépanneurs, including an Ultramar gas station and convenience store across the street.

Part of the reason is customer service – Ubhi likes to chat with his regular customers, and he said they appreciate seeing a familiar face everyday.

His dépanneur’s unusual name, PMS, has earned him a certain cachet with some people in the neighbourhood, too. It’s meant to stand for the names of Ubhi’s son, daughter and niece. “Later on we found out it was something else, too,” he said, laughing.

But pricing counts, too. As with every dépanneur, beer makes up more than one-third of Ubhi’s sales, and he keeps his prices lower than those at other stores in the neighbourhood.

At Ultramar, “prices are high, and they don’t sell what I sell. I keep imported and microbrewery beer, which they don’t have, and our prices are much better than theirs,” he said.

Several blocks up Park Ave., Jim Wang has taken similar steps to expand the variety of products at his dépanneur.

In 2004, a year after he moved here from near Beijing with his wife, he bought the tiny, spartan store for $40,000.

The previous owner hadn’t invested much in the business, so Wang installed new fridges, stocked more beer and packaged food and started renting DVDs.

Wang’s approach has been simple: he asks customers what they want and then he orders it.

It seems to be working.

Business has increased every year since he bought the dépanneur.

Despite a mid-block location and a space that is no larger than most living rooms, revenue from the store is enough to support him, his wife and their daughter, who was born shortly after he bought the store.

Like Ubhi, Wang works long hours, from 9 a.m. until late at night. He passes most of the time by watching Chinese soap operas and movies on a TV in the store.

Compared with life in China, where he worked as a computer engineer, dépanneur work is lonely and monotonous.

“It was a big change of pace for me,” he said. “It’s long. After work, I go home, talk with my daughter and wife. Then I might go shopping in the morning before coming back.” When he left China, though, Wang had no illusions about the kind of work he’d be doing. He moved to Canada not for a job, he said, but for education and social services.

“For my child,” he said.

Wang, 35, said he plans eventually to sell the dépanneur, take time off to explore Canada and then come back to start a new business.

Ubhi, for his part, said that owning a dépanneur isn’t a bad line of work – if you can handle the hours.

“Financially, it’s worth it, but don’t expect big money in the first three or four years,” he said.

-30-

this article appeared first at: www.montrealgazette.com

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