A few days after Mrs. Mikes opened for the 2013 season, a customer who hadn't been to the venerable St. Boniface burger bar since last June stopped by for a bite.
The fellow placed his order. Then he asked co-owner Cathy Mikos why a picture of her husband, Nick, was on the counter behind her.
Before Cathy could answer, the man read a note below the photo and said, "Oh, no, don't tell me..."
The man, in his 50s, reached through the drive-in's front window. He held Cathy's hand. Then he repeated the same thing hundreds of others have told her, after hearing the news Nick died on July 21, 2012: How Nick was more than just the guy who prepared his all-time, favourite burger; that above all else, he considered Nick a friend.
Indeed, head to Mrs. Mikes Facebook page, where the condolences read more like what you'd expect from family members than from patrons of a takeout joint:
"Nick was one of the best..." Paige M.
"Will be sad indeed walking by and not seeing him and waving hello..." Cecile L.
"Nick was a great man and shall be forever missed..." Jamie L.
"I was Nick's first customer and my brother Ken will be his first up there..." Bill K.
"It was very tough to open this year for the first time without Nick," says Steve Mikos, Nick's brother and longtime business partner.
"In 43 years, he never missed a day of work. I still catch myself looking over my shoulder from time to time expecting to see him next to me, flipping patties."
-- -- --
The Mikos brothers were born in Greece, in a village just outside of Sparta.
Nick was 16 years of age when he moved to Winnipeg in 1961, along with his dad. Father and son landed jobs immediately.
Six months later, they used the money they saved to send for 15-year-old Steve.
"They came by boat but I arrived in style -- by plane," Steve says with a laugh, noting it took another six months of scrimping before there was enough cash to bring his mother, sister and grandmother to Canada, too.
Mrs. Mikes, located at 286 Taché Ave., had already been around for a couple of years when Nick started working there in 1967. The founder -- a fellow who answered to Mike, natch -- ran a dry-cleaning business next door and named his new venture for his better half.
Nick purchased the business from a second set of owners in 1969. Right away, he enlisted his brother to help out. Not that the elder Mikos always needed the extra set of hands.
"There were times back then when we only sold two or three hamburgers -- at 25 cents apiece -- all day," Steve says. "I remember one Saturday we made something like $50. The minute we closed I phoned my dad and said, 'You won't believe the big bucks we raked in today.' "
Compare that to the time, 20-odd years ago, when the Winnipeg Free Press ran a "Best Burger in Town" contest and Mrs. Mikes King Burger (two patties, loaded with the works) topped the field.
"Nick and I were shopping at Deluca's that morning for supplies, when one of the clerks came running up to us and said, 'Look, you're on page 1 of the paper,'" Steve recalls. "When we got to work, there was already a lineup of 20 people. For the rest of the day, it was nothing but King Burger after King Burger.
"I swear, if that ever happens again I'll just close the doors and say 'Thank you.'"
Good luck with that: nowadays, Mrs. Mikes is the sort of place expat Winnipeggers hit on their way into town -- before they even go home to say hi to Mom or Dad, Cathy says -- or on their way out.
"Just today, I had a guy who was leaving for Ottawa in the morning," Steve says. "He bought six cheeseburgers and told me he was going to freeze them for the trip home."
Then there's the woman from Norwood who, a few times every summer, packs up an order of fries and chili for her uncle in Alberta. Cost of fries and chili: $5.75; Cost of overnight delivery to Calgary via FedEx: $45.50.
Given that the only available seating at Mrs. Mikes is a series of picnic tables, Mrs. Mikes will never be mistaken for a romantic nook along the lines of Resto Gare or Step'n Out. Or will it?
Last summer, a customer made Steve an offer -- unsuccessful, as it turned out -- on a weathered park bench tucked up against the building's south wall. He told Steve it was where he got down on one knee and proposed to his wife, however many years ago.
Speaking of love and marriage: in 1973, Nick returned to Greece to visit relatives. He was introduced to Cathy on Jan. 30 and married her 19 days later, on Feb. 18. (In comparison, it took slow-mover Steve a full month to work up the nerve to propose to his wife, Voula.)
Mrs. Mikes is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Those hours are a breeze, Steve says, compared to the days when he and his brother worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
In 2011, Steve, Nick and Cathy, who joined her husband and brother-in-law at Mrs. Mikes after her two children were grown up, figured they were finally going to get a paid holiday when the producers of Society's Child, starring Margot Kidder, used Mrs. Mike's as one of the locations for their film.
"It was supposed to be a day off, because they didn't want a bunch of people in front of the restaurant, ordering food," Steve explains. "But that didn't really work out because after we made burgers and fries for a couple of the workers, we ended up feeding the entire cast and crew."