Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Kelekis diner part of fabric of North End
There won't be another like it
Standing on a street corner in what may be the best location in Winnipeg's Exchange District, football player-turned-restaurateur Obby Khan pointed to his new digs and talked about the future.
A few days earlier, the Canadian Football League offensive lineman lost the Grey Cup as a member of the Calgary Stampeders. On Friday, he sized up the facade of Shawarma Khan, the restaurant he plans to run at the northeast corner of McDermot Avenue and Albert Street.
"We hope to be open the first week of January," said the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber, using the term "hope" only to describe the uncertainty of passing City of Winnipeg inspections.
No restaurant owner would rely on the power of hope to succeed at their operation. That's because running a restaurant is one of the riskiest moves any entrepreneur could ever make
Hope won't hurt a restaurateur, but in order to succeed, they're better served by a reliable business plan, a good location and above all, a remarkable amount of commitment. The vast majority of restaurants fail spectacularly, thanks to the combined evils of narrow profit margins, high overhead, inconsistent suppliers, unpredictable labour and fickle customers.
Most are lucky to survive two years. Restaurant owners who manage to stay afloat for five or 10 years deserve to be considered geniuses.
Lasting 81 years, the way C. Kelekis Restaurant has done, should qualify owner-operator Mary Kelekis for demigod status. Selling burgers and fries on a North End stretch of Main Street was not a business plan, but a mission statement for the Kelekis family, who will be missed when their eponymous restaurant shuts for good at the end of January.
The news Kelekis will close was followed by a now-familiar round of Winnipeg chatter. Longtime North Enders immediately waxed nostalgic. People who grew up in St. James or St. Vital likely just shrugged.
Former devotees who haven't patronized the establishment for decades made plans with friends to meet up at Kelekis for some shoestring fries, a bizarrely ice-devoid glass of Coca Cola and a split wiener or a Yaleburger or both. Naysayers bragged they never visited or simply didn't get the aura of nostalgia that enshrouds the place, adorned so famously with pictures of celebrities people under the age of 50 may not recognize.
Watching this range of reaction unfold on Twitter on Friday, it was impossible not to be overcome with a sense of déj vu.
In December 2010, when the owners of the Coronation Block announced they had tired of running the Shanghai Restaurant, Chinatown's longest-running institution, a Chinese-Canadian staple since the 1940s, had effectively fried its final egg roll. The restaurant closed the following January and was finally demolished a few weeks ago to make way for possibly a seniors home in the future.
In May 2011, when the Longboat Development Corp. announced its acquisition of the Norlyn Building on Hargrave Street, the famous Wagon Wheel Lunch -- in business since 1951 -- was doomed. Despite vague talk of reopening elsewhere, the Wagon Wheel served its final clubhouse on a sunny afternoon last July. A new residential tower will soon rise on the same block.
Kelekis has been around since 1931 in one form or another, as the mural on the restaurant wall opposite the ones with the famous photos illustrates. During that time, entire generations have grown up scarfing down Kelekis burgers, growing intimately acquainted with the way patties fall apart and create a unique sort of sloppy salad in combination with little bits of relish and fried onion.
Why is such obsessive detail important? Because long-running institutions that make their own food are so rare in today's homogenous hospitality world, where franchises value consistency over quality.
Kelekis is not just one of Western Canada's last authentic diners. It's inextricably linked with the mythos of a multicultural, ultra-dynamic North End where everybody came from and nobody remains, when in fact only a minority of us actually came from there and a lot of us continue to live there and love it, despite its reputation.
There can be and never will be another C. Kelekis Restaurant. Visit within the next two months or prepare to cherish your memories. The extreme commitment displayed by Mary Kelekis's family will never be forgotten.
If Obby the former Bomber manages to exude a tiny fraction of it, Shawarma Khan will survive a decade.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A4
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About Bartley Kives
Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.
Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.
In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.
He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.
A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.
Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.
Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.
On Twitter: @bkives
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