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Ship shape

Dedication to regular customers means Exchange diner named after British shipping line operates in smooth waters

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Everyone's a comedian.

The White Star Diner, located at 58 Albert St., borrows its name from the Cunard-White Star Line, a defunct, British shipping line best known for its ill-fated vessel, the RMS Titanic.

Owner Bruce Smedts shared that tidbit with some passers-by four years ago, hours before his take-out lunch spot was due to open.

 

"I was outside putting the finishing touches on my sign when these guys asked me what White Star meant," Smedts says. "After I explained, one of them said he hoped my business didn't sink." (Oh, in case you were wondering, no, Smedts does not use iceberg lettuce on his BLTs.)

Joking aside, Smedts has been a fan of the golden age of ocean liners almost his entire life -- ever since his parents took him to see The Poseidon Adventure at the Starlite Drive-in in 1972.

Days after watching Gene Hackman meet his doom, Smedts headed to the library to learn everything he could about the RMS Queen Mary -- the boat many of The Poseidon Adventure's scenes were filmed aboard.

"You walk into my house nowadays and you know this is a person who likes ships," Smedts says, describing his walls and shelves as overflowing with nautically-themed keepsakes from his youth.

So after Smedts bought an existing business in 2009, it didn't take him long to decide what to call it. As for his grub -- an assortment of sandwiches, burgers and shakes -- well, that was almost five decades in the making, too.

 

-- -- --

 

Smedts grew up in Transcona. He started following his mother around the kitchen at an early age and by the time he was 13, he was in charge of preparing Sunday dinner for his parents and four older siblings.

"I made duchess potatoes before I knew what duchess potatoes were," Smedts says with a chuckle. "One night after mashing some potatoes, I put them in a (icing) bag and piped them out, onto a roasting pan. Later, when I took home-ec at school, I found out it was an actual thing."

Smedts got his first job at the age of 15 at a Regent Avenue A&W. That led to a 30-year restaurant career that included stints at locales like Smitty's, Mother Tucker's and Maxime's.

Smedts began thinking about getting a smallish place of his own about six years ago. While shopping around, he recalled a conversation he had with a customer, back when he was a manager at Chamberlyn's.

"He told me the most important thing about running a business was getting to know your clientele on a personal level."

Duly noted. Go to websites like Urbanspoon and Tripadvisor and you'll notice most comments about the White Star mention its affable, ever-present owner as much as creations like the Screaming Chihuahua (all-beef dog with bacon, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions) or Mortimer (cheese burger topped with pulled pork).

"I have an open window into the kitchen, so I'm able to blab away with almost everybody who comes in," Smedts says. "I know most of my regulars by name, what they do for a living, whether or not they have kids... I also know what they like to eat. They might forget they prefer fried onions versus raw, but I don't."

Smedts's space has been an eatery in one form or another for almost 60 years under a variety of banners, among them: Frost Lunch, Mike's Burgers and, most recently, Albert Street Burgers.

"One customer said his family ran this place in the '60s, when it was a sit-down diner. He told me there were tables and chairs in what's now the kitchen, but I have a hard time picturing that considering the entire place is only 480 square feet."

About that: Smedts could only laugh when a person rushed into his foyer (seating capacity: four) a couple of weeks ago and told Smedts he was meeting friends.

"Are they here yet?" the fellow asked hurriedly.

With a straight face, Smedts said he hadn't seen anybody, but told the man to feel free to have a look around.

 

-- -- --

 

To be an award-winning news anchor, you have to eat like an award-winning news anchor.

Global Winnipeg's Peter Chura, the recipient of a CANPRO gold medal for a piece he did on Canadian troops in Bosnia, is a familiar face at the White Star Diner.

"The White Star is pretty much right across the street from Global, and has been a favourite place for a bunch of people from our newsroom ever since it opened," Chura says, citing the grilled cheese on rye with bacon and tomatoes as his current go-to sandwich. "One time, I brought back a big batch of blue cheese poutine. The staff was equal parts horrified and impressed at the powerful aroma, but I loved it."

Smedts might challenge Chura for air-time yet. The producers of You Gotta Eat Here, Canada's version of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives have been in touch a couple of times.

"I sent in my audition tapes but I've heard they don't feature take-out places so I guess we'll see."

If Smedts ever gets his moment in the sun, here's hoping he tells the story about his first day on the job:

 

DAY 1 -- APRIL 20, 2009 -- turned out to be much busier than Smedts anticipated. At around three that afternoon, just when Smedts was beginning to catch his breath, his phone began to ring off the hook. Each call was from someone who'd been in earlier in the day. And each caller wanted Smedts to know how much they'd enjoyed his food.

"I was near tears," Smedts says. "I'd quit my job... I'd mortgaged my house. But right then and there I was convinced this was the best thing I'd ever done."

The White Star Diner is open Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Closed Easter weekend.)

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 E3

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