Real Estate

The Move: From Toronto’s rental grind to a quaint corner store in Quebec

When Hamza and Tatjana were priced out of the GTA, they found a more convenient way of life in La Belle Province
Stephanie Verge
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The buyers:

Tatjana Heuer-Carrigan, 31, and Hamza Tariq, 37

The budget:

$1.5 million 

The backstory:

Throughout his late teens and early 20s, Hamza worked part time at his father’s corner stores, first in Kingston, Ontario, then in Winnipeg. He didn’t mind the work, which included stocking shelves, paperwork and manning the counter—he just couldn’t imagine making a life of it. After finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg, Hamza moved to Toronto, where, three years ago, he met Tatjana on Tinder. It was a whirlwind romance, and the couple married after less than a year of dating. At that point, they both had steady jobs in marketing—him for American Express, her for the Toronto Star—and they were thinking about buying a home together. 

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To save money, the couple moved in with Hamza’s parents, who were then living in a four-bedroom home in Brampton. Hamza and Tatjana were grateful for the helping hand, but space was tight: Hamza’s sister and brother-in-law were also crashing at the house, and Hamza’s brother often stayed over. In early 2021, after six months of cohabiting in cramped quarters, the couple started looking for their dream property.  House prices had skyrocketed during the pandemic, which limited their options. But Hamza and Tatjana weren’t interested in a starter home. They wanted a place with several bedrooms—they were planning for kids—as well as office space. A $1.5-million budget wouldn’t stretch far in Toronto, so they focused their search on Etobicoke, Oakville and Mississauga. They visited roughly 30 properties in their price range, all small townhouses and semi-detached properties that needed extensive aesthetic or structural upgrades. None appealed to them, and they called off their search without ever entering a bid.

In May of 2021, Hamza and Tatjana decided to sign a year-long lease on a two-bedroom condo in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood and wait for house prices to settle. “Seeing what we could afford made us feel so discouraged,” says Tatjana. “We also started to think that our corporate lives in Toronto weren’t going to allow us the work-life balance we wanted. The ability to  spend more time at home with a child or two was important to me.” Conversations with Hamza’s parents further expanded their thinking. The Tariqs’ corner-store business brought in more money than Hamza and Tatjana’s salaries combined—plus they set their own hours. Hamza, now a long way from his part-time days at his father’s shops, realized that buying their own store might be the solution he and Tatjana were looking for. 

The hunt:

The couple resumed their real estate search, this time in Quebec, where Tatjana was born. There, they could buy a corner store—known as a dépanneur, or “dep,” in La Belle Province—for a third of the price of an Ontario store. Job security was another upside: independent dépanneurs are fixtures of Québécois culture and occupy a solid niche in a market saturated with bigger convenience chains. Tatjana was also excited by the idea of returning to the province of her birth. “Even though I grew up in Vancouver,” she says, “I felt connected to Quebec. I often visited my dad’s family in Montreal.”

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Over a series of weekends in the late winter and early spring of 2022, Hamza drove thousands of kilometres to scope out dozens of existing businesses for sale across southern and central Quebec. Sometimes Tatjana came with; other times, his parents came along for the ride. The couple came close to closing on a dépanneur located in Sherbrooke, but ultimately decided it was too big (and busy) a site for their first venture. It was on a solo trip a 90-minute drive northeast of Montreal that Hamza found “the one”: Dépanneur Joblo, in the 2,400-person town of Maskinongé. Joblo was previously owned by a couple in their 60s, and the business was already profitable. It sold convenience-store mainstays like chips, chocolate, milk, bread, beer and cigarettes, and even had its own coffee counter. In Maskinongé, whose entire commercial centre consisted of a gas station, a pharmacy, a gym and a bank, the dep was an established hub.

The 130-year-old building sat on just under an acre of land, next to a Catholic church and across from the Maskinongé River. Along with the main-floor store came two second-floor apartments. Hamza and Tatjana knew right away that they would move into the larger, three-bedroom space and set up the other one for visiting family and friends. Best of all, they could get the entire 2,400-square-foot complex for $450,000—less than a third of their Toronto budget. “It added up in so many ways,” says Hamza. “Plus, Maskinongé is halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, so we had easy access to big cities.” They were sold.

Hamza and Tatjana were initially a bit worried about what their neighbours would think of them. For starters, neither spoke French. Tatjana had taken classes in school but was far from being able to communicate at workplace-level fluency. They also had concerns about what it would be like for Hamza—who immigrated from Pakistan as a child—to be a brown, non-French-speaking person in a small, white town, a wildly different reality from Toronto. Determined to steer public opinion in their favour, the couple went on a charm offensive. Last July, a week or so after they moved in, they threw a “get to know us” party, setting up a tent in the dep’s parking lot and passing out donuts, muffins and coffee. They even printed 100 T-shirts emblazoned with “J’ai choisi Maski” (“I chose Maski”), a heart and a fleur-de-lis on the front, and “Dépanneur Joblo” on the back. “It was the talk of the town,” Hamza says. “People came into the store afterwards asking if we had any more shirts.”

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Settling into their new living quarters didn’t go quite as smoothly. After renting a modern condo in Toronto, life in an old building took some getting used to. The floors weren’t level and the apartment rattled with each passing train. Joblo’s previous owners were heavy smokers, which meant replacing all the light fixtures and window treatments, and washing the walls multiple times. In the end, the couple hired a local guy to repaint the interior, twice. Banishing the smoky smell cost them upwards of $5,000. Still, Hamza and Tatjana loved being able to spread out across 1,300 square feet in their unit, a pleasure after being cooped up first in a condo, and then with family. And there was no denying the convenience of living right above their new workplace.

Finding their groove as store owners took time, though. Before putting down an offer on Joblo’s, Hamza and Tatjana had decided not to make any immediate changes to the dep itself. They wanted the staff to feel as comfortable as possible before switching things up, especially given the language barrier. Tatjana’s grandmother—who speaks French—came to stay for a few days to help them get acclimated. “There’s only so much we can do with Google Translate,” says Tatjana. Shortly after, Hamza’s dad sent one of his bilingual employees from Ontario to spend three weeks at Joblo.

Despite Hamza and Tatjana’s best efforts, three of Joblo’s four existing staff members quit within two months of their arrival. Finding replacements during a labour shortage was difficult, but the dep was back up to three employees by December and by that point, everyone was gelling. Tatjana now deals with the dep’s day-to-day operations (like customer service and stock) while Hamza tends to back-end tasks (like accounting). In February, Joblo expanded its small coffee counter into a more elaborate takeout service called Chez Mama Sam, complete with a menu of South Asian dishes developed by Hamza’s mom (plus poutine). “At no point did I imagine we’d be living in the middle of Quebec, and that my mom would be teaching a cook named Steve how to make Pakistani food,” says Hamza, laughing. “Actually, he’s the brother of the guy who repainted our place. It really is a small town!”

Despite the initial challenges, Tatjana and Hamza’s gamble has paid off. They’re already looking to buy a second dep in the area and planning to rebrand their properties from gas station–style pit stops to a more “general store” feel. The couple also adopted an English cocker spaniel puppy named Monty, with whom they take long walks on the trails of Pointe-Yamachiche nature reserve. For now, at least, the quiet life in Quebec suits them. “I love that there’s no traffic here,” Hamza says. “And there are only ever six people at the gym.”

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