Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

St. Pierre-Jolys is the place to be for burgers in the summer, when Le Bébé Rouge is up and grilling

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When people from St. Pierre-Jolys return to their hometown -- like during this weekend's hoppin' Frog Follies, for example -- one of the first places they hit is Le Bébé Rouge.

"A lot of guys pop in here before they even go to their parents' place," says Elaine Mellor, the owner of the seasonal burger bar and ice cream stand, located on the north edge of town along Highway 59. "After they get their order, they say, 'Remember, don't tell my mom I was here.'"

Uh, chances are she already knows.

"Yeah, there aren't too many secrets in a small town," Elaine agrees, offering a guest a seat in her "dining area" -- a screened-in gazebo furnished with patio-style tables and chairs. "It's like when we reopen in the spring; I don't have to make an announcement because usually somebody tells somebody, they tell somebody else and pretty soon, the whole town knows."

This year marks a pair of anniversaries for Le Bébé Rouge. First, it's been 40 years since the original owners, Etienne and Rita Rioux, opened the hot spot, which they named for a red Irish etter pup born on the premises. Second, it's been 35 years since Elaine and her husband, Donat, adopted Le Bébé Rouge and began raising it as if it was their own.

 

Bringing up Bébé

ELAINE grew up on a dairy farm just outside of St. Pierre-Jolys. After graduating from high school, she moved to Winnipeg, where she got a job with MTS. One night while she was back home visiting friends, Elaine's brother introduced her to Donat, who was also enjoying a night out at the St. Pierre Hotel (now called Lucky Luc's). The pair hit it off and after trading 'I dos' a couple of years later, settled down in St. Pierre for good.

During the first year of their marriage, Elaine got a waitressing job at a local diner. The owner of Le Bébé Rouge approached her in the spring of 1978 and asked her if she wanted to rent out his locale for the summer.

"I didn't want to be a waitress my whole life so I said, 'Sure,'" Elaine says.

Twelve months later, Elaine and Donat bought the takeout spot -- and the adjoining gas station, car wash and convenience store -- outright.

 

Family planning

THE Mellors have three daughters. All three have slung burgers at Le Bébé Rouge at one time or another. More importantly, all three were born during the "off-season."

"I didn't really have a choice but to have them in the winter," Elaine says with a laugh. "That's the reason we built this gazebo -- so that I could bring them to work with me, when they were little."

In 2009 and 2010, Elaine took the summers off for the first time since she took over Le Bébé Rouge. The people who rented the space changed the name of the place, first to the Red Baby and then to Chez Mémère.

"She worked for both guys we rented out to, showing them the ropes and stuff," says Donat. "Except what started happening is people would drive by and if they saw Elaine's car, they'd stop in. If they didn't, they kept on going." (This summer, Elaine is working alongside a third generation Bébé Rouger -- her 12-year-old granddaughter Chelsey, who lives in Sainte-Anne-des-Ch�nes.)

 

Où est le boeuf?

THE most popular selection on Le Bébé Rouge's menu is its namesake burger, the Bébé Rouge ($5.25). It comes loaded with the works and is also available as a double or triple-patty behemoth.

Donat says that a lot of guys who grew up in the area now work in oil-rich Alberta. "When they come home on weekends, they show up here with a big cooler and order a couple dozen Bébé Rouges to take back with them," he says. "From here they head straight to the airport, catch their flight and bring the burgers to their buddies working on the rigs."

Another thing: every burger that comes off the grill at Le Bébé Rouge is given an amorous au revoir.

"After I wrap a burger up (in foil) I give it a little hug," Elaine says, demonstrating her technique. "At first it was to keep them from falling apart, but when people started commenting that I was putting 'love' into their food, I kept doing it." ("You don't want me making your supper," Donat interjects. "My hug is more like a squish.")

 

Love at first bite

DANIEL Roy is a singer/songwriter from St. Boniface. When Roy was growing up, he and his parents would often stop at Le Bébé Rouge for a hot dog or ice cream while on their way to the family cottage in nearby St. Malo.

Years later, Roy penned a song called Bébé Rouge, which he and his band, Johnny Cajun, recorded for their self-titled debut album.

"I was simply inspired by the small-town feel that this cute lil' greasy-spoon, roadside restaurant has and wrote a love song around it," Roy says, translating the French language tune of two high school sweethearts who first go there for a milkshake and then, years later, after they are married with children, return to their old haunt for a date night.

The song struck a chord with Roy's manager Michel Durand-Wood and his wife, Emma. So much so that, well, why don't we let Emma tell the rest of the story...

"My husband -- then boyfriend -- Michel introduced me to Johnny Cajun's music. I quickly became a huge fan of that particular song and we sort of thought of it as one of 'our; songs," Emma says.

In 2008, Emma accompanied the band when they were playing a gig in Langenburg, Sask. At one point in the show, Michel got up to wander the theatre and take some photos of the band. Emma didn't think anything of it. But when Johnny Cajun struck up the first notes of Bébé Rouge, she wondered where Michel was and why he was wasn't returning to enjoy the song with her.

The next thing Emma knew, the band had slowed the number down to a crawl, and her beau had suddenly appeared onstage.

"Michel gave a brief explanation of our relationship and then invited me to join him. I wobbled nervously up the stairs and onto the stage, where Michel got down on one knee and proposed, while the band played softly in the background.

"Once I said yes and we embraced, the guys kicked into the chorus and the audience applauded madly," she says.

The Durand-Woods got hitched a year later and -- how's this for a happy ending? -- Bébé Rouge was one their first songs they danced to, as a married couple.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 E3

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