THREE years ago, this space featured a story about Leif Norman and Andrew McMonagle, a pair of Winnipeggers who call themselves the Breakfast Connoisseurs. Every week, Norman and McMonagle rise, shine and dine at one nook or another. Afterwards, they post reviews of their eggs-ploits on their website, www.BreakfastWinnipeg.com
At the tail end of that piece, we mentioned the duo’s Top 5 picks for brekkie — a list that included the Seine River Café.
"After that article came out, it was nuts in here," says Doug Torgerson, who runs the no-nonsense diner, located at 390 Provencher Blvd., together with his wife, Lori. "We loved the publicity but at the same time, we hated like hell when regular customers — people who are here seven days a week — all of a sudden couldn’t get a seat.
"In the end, everybody was proud of us," Torgerson goes on. "Even though a lot admitted that they liked it better when the rest of the city didn’t know we were here."
Torgerson grew up in the West End. He began working at the Original Pancake House when he was in high school, and spent the next 15 years at that chain’s Polo Park and Pembina Highway locations.
Torgerson moved over to Smitty’s in the early 1980s, where he took a job in the corporate sector, managing new franchises as they opened across the country. (Smitty’s is also where Torgerson met Lori, back when the two of them worked at the Garden City location.) In 2000, the Torgersons were running a Smitty’s restaurant in Winkler. One day, they got a call from a friend of Doug’s who owned a St. Boniface strip mall. Torgerson’s buddy told him that one of his tenants — the owner of a Ukrainian deli — wasn’t renewing his lease. He wanted to know if the couple was interested in giving the 48-seat locale a look-see.
"Winkler was fine, but we were driving back and forth from the city every day," Torgerson says, explaining that he and Lori never moved there because they didn’t want to be separated from their seven grandchildren. "So we came and took a peek and thought, ‘OK, maybe this could be a nice little retirement thing, somewhere we could kind of take it easy."
So much for the best laid plans of mice, men and short-order cooks: Torgerson is often so busy nowadays that he saves time by preparing meals while regulars are still circling around the parking lot.
"I have a real problem with names but I am pretty good with orders," says Torgerson, who works alongside his son, Todd, seven days a week. "So if I can see somebody coming, I can usually have their food ready by the time they find somewhere to sit."
After 40-plus years in the restaurant biz, Torgerson figured he had seen — and cooked — everything. Then one morning, a homesick Londoner happened by the "Seine" and approached the owner with a special request: would Torgerson make him an old-fashioned, English-style breakfast?
Torgerson said he’d be happy to, but that he’d need a few days to do his homework. The next morning, Torgerson paid a visit to one of his mall-mates — Molly’s Meat Pies.
"The owners are English, so I went in there and said, ‘Hey, what’s with this blood pudding some guy’s asking about?’" Torgerson says. "They told me, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s huge over there’ and then explained how to make it."
A few days later, the Brit returned to the Seine River Café, where he sat down to a meal that included the aforementioned blood pudding (it’s a type of sausage), as well as fried eggs, fried bread, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans.
"He thanked me 10 times on his way out and told me it was the best breakfast he’d ever had," Torgerson says. "I said, ‘That’s great. Just don’t tell anybody where you got it.’"
Immediately behind the Seine River Café’s front counter is a display case that serves as the Torgerson family album. There, dozens of photos of the Torgersons’ children, grandchildren and pets draw customers’ attention away from an adjacent, hand-written chalkboard advertising the daily specials. (The Seine River Café is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week.) "Every time we try to take a few (photographs) down to make room for new ones, people want to know where their favourite picture went," Torgerson says with a chuckle.
Last summer, one of the hostesses suggested adding an addendum to the mosaic— one that would keep customers up-to-date on the condition of one of the diner’s owners.
"Lori had heart surgery — she had to have a mechanical valve inserted — and was off for about a year," Torgerson says. "For months, the only thing people asked was ‘How’s Lori doing?’ Some didn’t even stay to eat; they just popped in to find out if she was feeling better."
Lori returned to waitressing — weekends only — a couple of months ago.
"I should have set up a hugs booth that first weekend," she says, taking a rare break from making sure everybody’s coffee is topped up. "I would have been rich."
Now that Lori is back at work, she can go back to what she does best: fretting about her customers, instead of the other way around.
"There’s one couple from the North End that have been coming here every Saturday and Sunday for 12 years," Lori says. "A couple of weeks ago they didn’t show up. The next time they came in I told them that from now on, they have to phone me if they aren’t coming. That way, I won’t spend my entire morning worrying if something is wrong."