Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wagon Wheel's days could be few

Forced to relocate, owner considers closing iconic downtown diner

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Winnipeg's favourite clubhouse sandwich is on the endangered species list and could become extinct early in the new year.

The Wagon Wheel Lunch restaurant has operated out of the Norlyn Building since 1958, but it has to move out by March. That's when the Hargrave Street structure will meet with the wrecking ball as part of the downtown Winnipeg SHED (sports hospitality and entertainment district) plans.

The extensive revitalization blueprints include the construction of a new hotel, a parkade, new office and retail space and a central meeting place over the next few years. There is no firm cost estimate on the massive project, but insiders say it will run well into the "hundreds of millions" of dollars.

Franny Gomez, who took over the Winnipeg culinary institution last year after the death of longtime owner Louis Mathez, said she's unsure whether she can afford to keep it running.

"I'm still undecided. Do I continue or do I just quit? I know (potential sites) out there are expensive. It's very hard to afford to move (the restaurant) somewhere else. I've been shopping around but I haven't found anything yet," she said.

"It's a possibility that we could shut down."

Ross McGowan, president and CEO of CentreVenture, the downtown Winnipeg development agency, said he's working to make sure that doesn't happen. He said the Wagon Wheel is the only tenant in the Norlyn Building he's worried about because of its longevity and place in the city's restaurant history.

McGowan hasn't had any direct contact with Gomez, but he has indicated to Scott Stephanson, president of Longboat Development Corp., which bought the Norlyn recently, about the importance of finding another site for the Wagon Wheel.

"If we have to help them with their rent or their move, we're certainly prepared to do that. We're more than willing to work with them. We don't want to see them harmed," he said.

Celebrities frequently visit the Wagon Wheel while in town performing and it's a favourite of out-of-town athletes, too, notably the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts.

Gomez said when she tells her customers about the possibility of putting the brakes on the Wagon Wheel for good, they have one response.

"They say, 'No, you're not allowed to close. If you move, you have to take the booths, the wheels, you have to bring everything with you so it will look like (the current location).' A lot of them are very sad about it," she said.

The feeling is mutual, Gomez said.

"Since I came to Canada (from El Salvador 26 years ago), this has been my only job. I started washing dishes, then I went to the kitchen to help Louis with the cooking. Then they asked me if I wanted to waitress and I did. That's my life in Canada, the story of my life in Canada -- work, work, work here," she said.

Not only is the Wagon Wheel the only place of employment she has known in Canada, but her kids work there, too.

Gomez said she hasn't tried to raise any money to help fund a new home for the Wagon Wheel. But if some was forthcoming, either from government agencies or some well-heeled customers, she said she'd do her best to keep the clubhouse sandwiches coming.

"It's hectic but at the same time, I enjoy it," she said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2011 B1

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