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Johnny won’t take the T-Bird away

McPhillips Street fixture not closing anytime soon, 76-year-old owner says

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Ever since Mary Kelekis announced that she was closing her venerable Main Street eatery at the end of January, patrons of the equally august Thunderbird Restaurant have been concerned that "their" place might be the next to go.

"Every day people are asking me, ‘Are you going to retire, too?’" says John Ginakes, who opened the Thunderbird, located at 1970 McPhillips St., in 1961 with his brothers, Jimmy and Perry.

"Even my wife says, ‘Aren’t you tired?’ But I tell her the same thing I tell everyone else. I’m not going anywhere because even after all this time, I don’t feel like I’ve worked an hour in my life, I enjoy it so much.

"When people come up to me and say they’ve been eating here for 50 years I just shake my head and wonder where the time goes. To me, it feels like we just opened."

Ginakes grew up in the tiny Greek village of Niata. His older brother, Jimmy, moved to Winnipeg in 1950. John, the third of five children, joined him here four years later, after he turned 18. For a while, the siblings shared a one-room apartment on Vaughan Street. Their abode was blocks away from where John worked as a shoe-shine boy, and just around the corner from Jimmy’s first foray in the food biz — the Manhattan Restaurant on Portage Avenue.

John and Jimmy opened up a place of their own — Denny’s Quick Lunch — in 1960. The downtown diner did a brisk business but in order to cash in on the drive-in restaurant craze that was sweeping across North America, the pair (and younger brother Perry, who arrived in Winnipeg in 1959) moved their operation to an empty parcel of land on McPhillips Street. (The brothers decided to call their new locale the Thunderbird after one of their friends came across the name in a magazine, and convinced the Ginakes brothers to adopt the mythological creature as their own.) Ginakes says there was "absolutely nothing else" along that stretch of McPhillips at the time. But as people drove by the Thunderbird on their way out of town, they would spot dozens of parked cars there and pull in to see what the fuss was about.

"We had room for about 80 (cars) and things used to get so busy on Friday and Saturday nights that we had eight or nine girls on duty until three in the morning," Ginakes says, adding that carhop service was available year-round, even when the mercury dipped to -20.

Not everybody drove to the Thunderbird, mind you. In the mid-1960s, equestrians who trained at a nearby riding academy would sometimes show up on horseback. They would tether their mounts to trees, then head inside for a hamburger, hotdog or another of the house specialties — spaghetti, wieners and beans.

The Thunderbird ceased being a drive-in in 1979, the same year Jimmy and Perry left the business to start up the Pony Corral and Rib Shack franchises, respectively.

That was also the year Ginakes doubled the capacity inside the restaurant to 75. He briefly considered adding a cocktail lounge to the mix but was talked out of it by regulars who told him that "sort of thing" wouldn’t fit in with the Thunderbird’s homey upholstered booths and floral curtains.

Ginakes has a long list of former customers who have moved away but make a point of dropping by for a chat and a bite every time they return to Winnipeg. There is also a large contingent of Thunderbird loyalists across the continent who place takeout orders through their relatives, for jars of chili sauce and buckets of chicken.

"Parents tell me their kids won’t let them through the front door when they come to visit if they haven’t stopped here first," Ginakes says.

Some of the Thunderbird’s most renowned customers — actress Nia Vardalos, former Jets captain Dale Hawerchuk and Blue Bomber greats like Chris Walby and the late Charlie (Choo-Choo) Shepard — have a special place of honour on the restaurant’s wall of fame. It’s too bad there aren’t any photos of the Sisler High School student who, on a dare, once downed eight double-patty Master Burgers in a single sitting, before waddling back to class.

Ginakes, 76, works side-by-side with his wife, Gloria, six days a week (the restaurant is closed on Sundays). He splits his time evenly between the floor and the kitchen, and taps his head when he is asked where his recipes are stored for safekeeping.

Although Ginakes is usually a blur of activity during the day, refilling coffee cups or sizing people up for commemorative Thunderbird T-shirts, he always reserves a few moments for a private ritual.

"I have a little book in my office that I paste obituaries in of people who used to come here," Ginakes says. "Late in the evening when I’m here by myself, I take the book out, leaf through it slowly and talk to all the friends that I’ve lost. ‘Where did you go?’ I ask them. ‘You were just here yesterday.’"

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