Born Charles McKiernan around 1835, Joe Beef, also known as “the friend of the working man”, was an important figure in our city’s history. Born in Ireland, this generous man spent a significant stretch of time working for the British army. McKiernan’s famous nickname was given to him during his military service; people called him “Joe Beef” for his ability to find, among other things, pieces of meat that he would share with his regiment. Towards the end of 1860, he and his family would finally settle in Montreal.
Upon arriving in the city, the Irishman was quickly put in charge of Ile Sainte-Hélène’s military canteen. After being discharged a few years later, the cook decided to start up his own business. In that moment, “Joe Beef’s Canteen” was born; not only would the place serve food, it would also function as an inn. The canteen quickly developed a faithful clientele and would become renowned for its dedication to quality and cleanliness, a particularly difficult feat during the period.
Joe Beef never aspired to be a powerful businessman. Instead, he was motivated by his desire to contribute to the community and help those in need in any way he could. He would often offer those without money a meal or a place to stay. His establishment was open to all, no matter their race, religious affiliation or economic status. Different menus were created in order to accommodate all kinds of different people; whether you could afford a steak or a soup, Joe Beef’s Canteen had a menu just for you. The restaurateur’s military experience helped him run his business in a way that offered a quality experience to the widest range of clients at an affordable price. This being the case, Joe Beef became a highly respected man here in Montreal.
Did you know that, in addition to all this, Joe Beef also housed caged bears and monkeys in the canteen? It’s true! The man had an array of animals in house to entertain his clients. A true spectacle!
Joe Beef helped fund hospitals and became an important figure to the worker’s movement of the era; he played an integral role in the Lachine Canal workers’ strike in 1877, for example. When tasked with more duties at work, employees demanded larger salaries to compensate for these changes. While the workers were on strike, Beef would bring them food, drink and supplies until an agreement was reached. His great generosity was no secret!
In January of 1889, Joe Beef passed away. Beef was buried as a hero by 50 men, each one representing a different workers organization. The funeral service was highly attended and every attendant had a story to tell about his kindness.
One of Montreal’s most well known restaurants is named in honour of this famous military cook. “Joe Beef”, owned by Fred Morin and David McMillan, has made waves worldwide for having some of the best food in the entire country. Its unique location on Notre-Dame Street is a wink to the business’ namesake. This restaurant is incredibly important to our city, much like Joe Beef himself!
Credit couverture : © Antoine Desilets
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