Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kelekis says goodbye to 'a wonderful 70 years'

There's something about Mary Kelekis, but as she turns 88, she's ready to hang up her apron

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On the eve of the Last Supper, the heat is on the fritz and a woman named Mary is talking about a lost sister and her mother Magdalene.

"Right now I've got no heat," Mary Kelekis is saying. "I'm freezing. Here, feel my hands."

It's only moments before the doors open at the Kelekis Restaurant, a North End landmark founded 81 years ago by patriarch Chris Kelekis, who in 1932 opened a chip stand in the back of a Model T. Chris Kelekis had a hunch French-fried potatoes might have a future. "It goes to show you," Mary said, "that he had a very good idea."

For the next eight decades, the Kelekis family -- parents Chris and Magdalene, five daughters and one son -- turned their little business into an institution, a time-warped touchstone built on skinny fries, lifetimes of toil and hamburgers.

Chris Kelekis was the brains behind the first chip stand, but it was wife Magdalene whose finger prints were literally all over the burgers. Said Mary: "We still use her recipe."

Today, however, the grill will be turned off. The restaurant, with its orange countertops and hazel panelling -- most lined with photos of politicians, entertainers and Winnipeg celebrities of the 1960s, '70s and '80s -- will be locked for good.

Mary Kelekis, 88, believes seven decades on the job might be enough.

"I'm ready," she said. "I've put in 70 years, from the time I was in high school. But it's been a wonderful 70 years."

Since announcing the closure last November, Kelekis, always a popular lunch haven, has become a reverse bucket-list destination -- get there before it dies. Much like the Bay's Paddlewheel Restaurant that closed last week, Kelekis has a mythical aura drenched in an oral history passed down through generations of burger and fry lovers.

Jim Horoshok, now 73, had a grandmother who used to tend to the family plots at nearby Elmwood Cemetery. A first-generation Ukrainian immigrant, she loved the hotdogs at Kelekis, where she would take little Jim after her duties at the cemetery were complete. Decades later, Horoshok was sitting in the restaurant's front lobby, waiting for a spot to open, along with his sister, Karen, and his daughter and 17-year-old grandson.

"We wanted to show him (the grandson) where we came after dances," Karen said. "So he could see what it was like when the old folks were young."

Indeed, the Kelekis walls tell a story. There are black-and-white photos in the dining area, the likes of prime ministers (Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien) to TV-show hosts (Pat Sajak, Winnipeg's Monty Hall) to famous local musicians (Randy Bachman, Chantal Kreviazuk).

There are more photos along the entrance wall, an oil portrait of father Chris with pictures of all siblings -- Chryse, Sophie, Evelyne, Isabel, Mary, Leo and Becky. Only Mary, Chryse (now 98) and Becky are still alive. All of them began working alongside their father as teenagers and spent the majority of their working lives sharing the same space.

Chryse now lives in a local nursing home. Whenever sister Mary comes to visit, she asks, "Do you have a job for me?"

"He (father Chris) was so proud of his children," Mary said. "We all worked together. You've heard of work ethic? It was part and parcel of what we did with dad."

The Kelekis clan ran a tight ship. Old-school. If a waitress arrived in a shorter skirt back in the '70s, she might have been lectured: "This is a restaurant, not a rock concert."

To this day, Mary doesn't suffer fools. There is no malingering. Pay heed to all orders. And that's not just for staff, either.

Asked what he'd miss most about Mary Kelekis, longtime customer John Belasco, seated at the front counter, replied: "Her ballsy attitude."

But the staff at Kelekis is concerned about Mary's future after she locks the door tonight one last time.

"I'll be sad," offered waitress Diane Matenchuk. "I've been here 22 years. But Mary deserves to retire and rest. She's like my mother."

Leona Cook is standing in front of a full grill, sizzling with patties and fried onions. "I'm worried," Cook said. "She (Mary) puts up a brave front but (today) will be a hard time for her. When she leaves, that's when it's going to hit home, I think."

It's already starting. Kelekis was asked Tuesday what her father might have thought about this day. Or how his modest chip stand might turn into an iconic landmark to stand the test of time some 81 years. Would he be feeling bittersweet, too?

"Of course," his daughter said. "But we've done all we can do. I've lost three sisters and my brother. It's sad. Excuse me."

Mary gets up from her stool at the counter to grab a Kleenex and blows her nose. "Sorry," she said, losing the tears. "It's very emotional."

Crusty on the outside. Soft and warm on the inside. Kinda like a Kelekis burger.

Her mother's recipe.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2013 B1

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