Daniel Noiseux takes his restaurant to the people – literally
Daniel Noiseux didn’t always see himself as the foodservice type. First and foremost, he’s an inventor — someone who’s able to take abstract ideas gleaned from paying keen attention to the sights, sounds and tastes of life, and create a lucrative business plan.
His inspiration is as varied as the food he ate as a young man travelling through Maine, to the architecture he studied when contemplating a career in design. But his senses always spurn his creativity and drive him to take big risks to bring people great food prepared uniquely.
The 58-year-old French-Canadian entrepreneur is far from a self-proclaimed pioneer, but he admits he can spot a potential trend and run with it. Noiseux has the ability to figure out what people want — original food with an eco-friendly twist — and what they might like, even if the concept is foreign to them, like his restaurant that emerges, almost magically, from a box.
Noiseux’s journey into culinary innovation didn’t begin with the Muvbox, the 2009 transformer of a resto that caught the eyes, and pleased the palates, of curious diners. His beginnings began more modestly, with pizza.
“At some point, when you’re 29 or 30, you want to figure out what you’re doing,” says the congenial Noiseux. “And coming out of architecture, I knew I had a great location [in mind], and I wanted to figure out what to do with it.” Eventually, he and a friend decided the best way to utilize the Montreal location would be to transform it into a pizza restaurant that would incorporate a special feature almost unheard of in traditional Montreal pizza joints of the era — a wood-burning oven. “We were the first in Montreal,” boasts Noiseux. “We were ahead of a lot of people at the time.”
The wood-burning oven fuelled the opening of the small Pizzaiolle restaurant in 1981, and transformed the pizza experience, traditionally seen as casual, to one of greater sophistication. It wasn’t a quick-stop solution to hunger, but a date-worthy meal that could be as romantic as it was simple.
Today, Noiseux and his wife, Carole-Ann, who is in charge of purchasing, operate four Pizzaiolle restaurants throughout Quebec. Though sales this year have declined slightly due to the recession, Noiseux expects a quick reversal over the next few months. The expansion of the once-experimental restaurant can be attributed to profitability but also to Noiseux’s willingness to punch up the sophistication of the bare-bones Italian classic.
“We re-established pizza as a specialty item,” Noiseux explains. “We added new ingredients such as Italian cold cuts. The timing was right; the concept was right.” Though he still offers customers traditional tomato sauce and cheese pizza, he’s not afraid to serve less orthodox ingredients — like clams, asparagus and snails — to make the dining experience more exotic.
While undeniably a success story, the gourmet concept didn’t mushroom overnight. Prior to creating the off-the-beaten-path pizza, Noiseux tried to bring an American-style ’50s diner to Montreal, but the concept never quite took off. “The obsession we had [with the ’50s diner] was romantic,” Noiseux adds, “but not profitable.” While the concept failed, the blueprint behind it couldn’t be rendered obsolete. The architecture that first housed the diner and eventually Pizzaiolle delighted the designer in Noiseux. While he was able to salvage his culinary dream by abandoning the diner concept, and pursuing pizza, unusual buildings would continue to serve as inspiration.
With an eye for creative structures and an affinity for culturally significant food, Noiseux has managed to combine a love of travelling with a love of eating. When he first saw a pre-fab, portable unit (or box) being converted into a fully functional apartment at the Venice Biennale, he wondered if such a concept could be adapted to the foodservice industry. As it turns out, it can be. The 5,000-square-foot (when open), solar-powered Maritime container can blossom into a small restaurant in 90 seconds, and it houses an oven, refrigerator and on-site seating for 28 guests.
“No one thought of turning it into a restaurant,” muses Noiseux, the excitement noticeable in his voice. “It was an adventure, going with the inspiration to take a container and morph it into a commercial project.” After seeing a cube transform into something entirely different, the innovator knew he was on to something.
It may fold up at the end of the night, but the Muvbox box offers something many traditional restaurants don’t — an eco-friendly design. “Our mission is to be self-sustainable,” says Noiseux. “We want to be eco-friendly and off the grid. When people see the solar panels, the graphics and the recycled container, the demand increases.” The container is made from recycled parts, and the facility provides customers with biodegradable packaging. Noiseux, wisely, has tapped into consumer demand for environmentally conscious fare, and complementing his tiny carbon foot-printed restaurant, is his dedication to serving local food that is, ironically enough, a little unfamiliar.
The first-ever Muvbox, situated on Place du Génie on the Docks of the old port in Old Montreal, offers diners an eclectic menu they might not expect from a mobile structure. Always a risk-taker, Noiseux went beyond the standard chip truck, and instead vowed to serve only food made with exceptional, fresh ingredients. True to his word, the Muvbox has lobster rolls ($8.95), clam chowder ($3.95 a cup, $4.95 a bowl) and duck sausage pizza ($8.95) instead of burgers and onion rings. Also available is a combination of a roll, fries and a soft drink (the resto’s only “junk food concession,” $14.95). The lobster meat, taken from the crustaceans’ claws and knuckles, is also sourced from local fisherman in an effort to help sustain Quebec fisheries, which is as important to Noiseux as being eco-friendly.
As for the star of the menu, Noiseux fell in love with the lobster roll in Maine and saw fit to bring it home. “To this day, we’re trying to figure out if it’s the lobster or Muvbox itself [that keeps people interested],” says Noiseux. The lobster roll is a crowd pleaser that marries the elegance of fresh, local lobster and celery with the casual appeal of mayonnaise and a hotdog bun; it fits perfectly with Noiseux’s “push-the-envelope” philosophy. The hotdog bun may seem cheekily unorthodox, but the motivation behind the odd pairing was to reduce costs and adhere to tradition. In the end, the traditionalists won. “Enthusiasts wanted hotdog buns,” laughs Noiseux. “It’s actually a perfect blend — a classic.”
Whether or not the roll is destined to become the new poutine remains uncertain, but the Muvbox itself is wowing diners and entrepreneurs alike. “There’s been an overwhelming response,” says Noiseux. “From day one, we’ve had inquiries from all over the world.” In the short time it’s been open, inspired imitations have popped up from Toronto to Paris, and the man behind the box has even received inquiries from restaurateurs as far as Singapore. Noiseux has enthusiastically offered other restaurateurs the chance to take the Muvbox concept and build upon his design. He offers potential franchisees the ability to custom order containers — and menus — to suit their visions for a start-up fee of about $150,000. Interested restaurateurs can pick and choose the appliances they want and also decide whether or not to incorporate a ramp for disabled customers.
While many would think starting a franchise right in the thick of one of the worst recessions in decades was a risky move, Noiseux is nonplussed. “Opening any restaurant is a challenge,” he says. “There are always unanswered questions, and any business is risky. When I ask myself why I’m doing this, it’s because of the passion and fun behind the Muvbox. Discovering the concept was fun.”
Taking the plunge during a tumultuous financial period turned out to be worth the risk. Sales are up by 56 per cent from last year, a remarkable feat given the mobile resto is only open 100 days a year.
Along with fun, challenge, too, is paramount. Noiseux admits using newer containers would have been cheaper than using recycled ones, but he felt consumers would appreciate the effort. “It was a real challenge,” he says. “It would have been easier, and maybe cheaper, to use new containers. This [older container] appeals because it’s a profit-centered commercial development that’s socially responsible. People appreciate that. You can get a casual restaurant, or you can get a new experience.”
As for whether Noiseux has more international treats he intends to bring to Canada, he remains mischievously elusive. All he’ll say is that he’s always on the prowl for simple specialties that rely on the freshness of their ingredients. As for the Muvbox itself, he thinks it has even more untapped potential. “It’s a sign of something,” says Noiseux. “It keeps us excited and busy right now.”
Photographed by Spyros Bourboulis