I was waiting for my rendezvous to come in. His name is Réal Bertrand. I’ve known Réal since 1976, when both of us were working for Amco Services, then a division of Imperial Tobacco. He was a route man and I was a technician, or as we were known back then, a mechanic.
I saw Réal a couple of weeks earlier at Vending Products. Must have been two decades, if not more, since we last saw each other. In asking him what he was doing lately, he answered me with pride in his voice “I’m still route man, the oldest route man in Canada!” Bells started resonating in my head. The oldest route man in Canada? Well, it may be indeed that you are and that is worth investigating. A few days later, I got in touch with the Canadian Automatic Merchandising Association (CAMA), where I was told that he might be the oldest route man in Canada. Marie Saint-Ivany directed me to Canadian Vending and Office Coffee Service magazine, and we all agreed that this was a story worth telling.
So, there I was, sitting at the table with the list of questions, waiting for Réal. At 11 a.m. sharp, I saw an old 1966 black Chevrolet Impala pulling in. Could it be him? Not only is he probably the oldest route man in Canada, but he drives an old car as well? Who else? It’s him! He walked in enthusiastically and we started talking. We have so many things to talk about that I do not know where to start. After all, we have some 40 plus years to recap. Good thing Canadian Vending editor Laura Aiken sent me some questions to start with. I can use those as a canvas.
GG: When did you begin you career?
RB: After I left school, I did a myriad of little jobs and one of them was being a deliveryman for 7Up. This was a temporary job. Back then, I had a friend at Coinamatic Laundry and he told me that a close-by company specialising in vending machines named Amco Services had a route man position to fill. So, I went there with my resumé hoping for the best. I was met by Mike Trottier who was in charge of all route men. Things went well in the interview and I was hired. That was June 1976, one month before the Montreal Summer Olympic Games. Don Dillon was the person who trained me and showed me all the tricks of the trade. It did not take long for me to realize that not only did I like the job, but that I was in my element. In those days, a route man was attached with a mechanic, you Gilbert, and we were working together to keep all the machines full, clean and in perfect working condition; and more importantly, the customers happy. A happy customer is a buying customer and many buying customers make your weekly pay.
GG: What company did you work for?
RB: The list of companies I worked for is quite long but what is interesting is that I only quit a company once. As I mentioned, I started working with Amco Services, who was bought by Hudson’s Bay Company who merged us with La Cie H. Fortier. It changed its name to Red Carpet. Red Carpet was sold later to Selena Coffee who in turn became Van Houtte, who then sold the vending division to Ventrex. One day, I met a former working companion who was working for a small company and he told me they were looking for a route man, and that I would fit the position perfectly. It came at the right time, as I was already thinking about looking for something else at that precise moment. I accepted the offer immediately and that was the only time I left a company to go working for another. I became a route man for Distribution de la Gare who a few years later sold some of it vending routes, including the route man, to Café Distau where I currently work.
GG: What your first day on the job was like?
RB: I was assigned the West Island and South Shore routes. We were covering the West Island on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while the South Shore was taken care of on Tuesday and Thursday. I had multiple types of customers, ranging from Queen of Angels girls-only Academy to Meloche Quarry, where the machines were deep in the mud pit. By the way, this is one aspect of the job I enjoyed right from the very first day, and I still enjoy today: Working in vending takes you to places where you would normally never go unless you work there. Over the years, I served myriad of diverse locations.
GG: How has your route changed over the years?
RB: Back then, all the machines were mechanical. Gradually, over the years, electronic started to sneak in. Moving from adjusting a cam to change the quantity of coffee dispensed to keying in the value was a bit difficult to me. But I managed. In the early days, we had Seeburg freeze dried coffee machine, Seeburg post-mix soda pop, Steelmade hot soup vendor, Rowe 147 All-Purpose, Smokeshop Satellite, National 21-selection, Vendo Dairy Mart, Polyvend chip vendor, MDM freeze dried coffee, and so on. Nowadays, we have much better machines, especially coffee machines, that despite what people say, now give an excellent coffee. The products we find in vending machines have changed a bit but not that much. When I started in the business, I was selling May West, chocolate bars and chips and today I still sell those. Gone are the soup vendors and the cigarettes machines though. The means of payment have changed, driven by the increase in prices. A soda pop was 25¢ when I started. In the early days, we had to pour in multiple nickels, dimes, and some quarters to make a purchase. Then the loonie came in, followed a decade later by the toonie. Today, people are paying with their phone and we see the micro-markets segment increasing.
GG: There must have been some events, that over your career you consider as a game changer for the industry.
RB: The introduction of the $1 coin first, followed later by the $2, are in my opinion two milestones for the industry, which boosted the appearance of bill acceptors directly in the machines, which in turn has killed the change machine market for vending applications. Nowadays, cashless payment is another milestone.
GG: I will play the devil’s advocate by asking you this question: is it by a lack of ambition that you are still today a route man?
RB: Let me tell you something. Right from the beginning, when I started working for Amco Services in 1976, I liked the job. Being in direct contact with people was and still is very rewarding. A route man is the base. Remove the route man, there is no vending industry. He is the key employee because he is in direct, almost daily contact with the persons inserting coins in the machines. The customers do not see the CEO of the vending company; he sees the route man. To the customers, the route man IS the company. Who recieves crap when the machines aren’t working? Who receives compliments when the coffee is good and when the machines are filled with good food and well maintained? When I arrive on a location, I see smiles and this is what makes my day still after all those years. I have ambition and this ambition is serving my customers as they deserve to be served. When I go on vacation, my customers are asking where is Réal; when is he coming back? That is rewarding.
GG: Tell me about a particularly memorable moment on the job.
RB: Humm! That’s a tough question. One thing I remember happened in 1980. Back then, I had planned a long trip to Australia with friends and I was granted a very special permission to go on vacation for one month. At the end of the summer, a new CEO came in with the very specific mandate of putting the company back on its feet. When he found out I was going on vacation for a month, he simply cancelled my vacation. Everything was already booked, hotels, airfare (expensive airfare by the way), etc. I went to see my supervisor and told him to re-arrange that because if the decision stays, I quit. I was not counting my hours. I was faithful to the company, I had a special permission to leave for a month and when I was almost ready to go, the newcomer cancels everything. I was so mad. Not even a week later, everything was settled and I was cleared to go Down Under.
Another memorable moment happened many years ago at the bus terminal in Longueil. I was on duty one evening because of the Benson & Hedges International Fireworks Festival in La Ronde and I was filling up the machines. One of the machines was a pop machine that had some sort of internal door in the back. I do not remember the make of the machine, but anyway, I was filling the machine and one can got stuck. With my arm, I tried to clear the jam but that stupid door came back and caught my arm. The more I was pulling my arm out, the tighter the door was closing. I was stuck in the machine; can you believe it? There was a lady on site working for the vending operator that tried helping me, but as she was not very tall and as my arm was stuck at the top of the machine, she wasn’t of great help. A bus driver passing by asked us what we were doing, and finally, as he was much taller than the lady, he was able to push on that door in order to free my arm. Overall, my arm was stuck for close to 15 minutes. What an embarrassing situation!
GG: Was there ever at a time when you felt like quitting?
RB: Not really. Perhaps only when the one-month vacation incident happened, but besides that, I always managed to deal with the situation as it happened and in a positive manner.
GG: Say you are in a time machine travelling back in time and you meet your younger self, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
RB: This is a very interesting question and the answers would be this: Learn to be resourceful, be honest, be an excellent driver, be available and love the people you will serve because you may find a friend one day. Never forget that you do not only bring coffee, you bring happiness, and do it with a smile and you will come out as a winner. As for the rest, life will show you.
GG: Looking back on your first years, or decade on the job, is there anything you miss?
RB: I miss the camaraderie. Back in the early days, when we were coming back to the office on Fridays, there was a case of beer waiting for us and all the drivers were taking the time to talk about how was the week, things that happened, etcetra. I miss that period. Nowadays, everybody has their eyes riveted to their phone. Back then, people were talking to each other.
GG: Before we conclude on this trip down memory lane, tell me a bit about you on the personal side.
RB: I have been married since 1987 to a nice Peruvian girl that I met in the train station of Aguacalientes in Peru that leads to the Machu Picchu. She was with her girlfriend from Switzerland and as both of them were speaking in French (she was studying in Switzerland at the time), I started talking with them. It kind of clicked between us. We exchanged addresses and we began a long correspondence by letters. Remember that this was long before the internet and emails. During a trip in France, I asked her to marry me. We made all the arrangements for her to get the Canadian visa - which was quite a task – and she finally made it here and we got married. A few weeks later, I went to Peru for a religious marriage. It was a huge wedding, as she happened to be the daughter of a highly ranked government official. I have two kids. One is now a police officer in Montreal, and the other is still at university.
GG: Are you planning to retire eventually?
RB: Probably in a year or two, I will start slowing down a bit. What I’d like to do eventually is to be working on demand. There is a lot a very small owner-operators in the vending business and they can never go on vacation. I would like to offer my services on demand to them so that once in a while, they can go on vacation, and that would keep me active for a while before I really put a stop to my career.
After a very pleasant meeting where both of us travelled back in time, it was time to leave. He had some activities to do, and I had a bike ride to continue. As I was pedaling towards the airport for my bi-monthly plane-spotting session, I said to myself, no wonder he lasted so long in this business. The guy is absolutely passionate, the kind of guy you would eventually say you can take the guy out of vending but you can’t take vending out of the guy. I know it sounds cliché but that’s what he is: genuine! Furthermore, an important question came to my mind. Is he the oldest active vending route man in Canada? I would say most likely he is. And if he is not, then I challenge anyone reading this to come up with the name(s) of anyone that would have started his career in 1976 as a route man and still be active in the same field today. And if you do know someone, well, do like I just did and interview the guy. He or she must have some much to tell us!o
Gilbert Guinard has worked in the vending industry since 1975, with the last 22 years at SEM Inc. in Montreal. He is a past recipient of the Don Storey Award. Gilbert likes history —the day-to-day history, what people say about a period and what they have lived.
Meet Réal Bertrand
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