IF Doug Stephen had a crystal ball back in 2008, he would have foreseen the return of the NHL to Winnipeg and held on to the one restaurant his company owned downtown.
The president of Wow! Hospitality Concepts figures it's better to come late to the party than not at all, so he's going to start in The Lobby On York. The Winnipeg-based company has purchased the 11,000-square foot, 220-seat restaurant, plus another 70 in the lounge, for an undisclosed sum.
"We've been sniffing around downtown. We had looked at a couple of sites, including the old 4Play (Sports Bar), but they didn't fit what we wanted to do," he said.
The Lobby becomes the ninth and biggest location in Wow's portfolio and will finally enable it to benefit from the 15,000 people that come downtown for Jets games more than 40 nights a year.
"We are more than pumped. We have benefited from the Jets coming back with players coming into 529 Wellington to eat but as a direct beneficiary for (NHL hockey), now we're back in that game," he said.
By comparison, 529 Wellington has 125 seats, Peasant Cookery in the Exchange District has a total of 105 and Terrace In The Park has 165 on two floors.
Wow has nearly 400 employees in Winnipeg, including 40 at The Lobby.
Stephen said he didn't want to interrupt operations during the all-important Christmas season so Wow will run The Lobby as-is until the beginning of February or so and then contemplate a rebrand, including a new name, menu and look.
While the chance to participate in downtown's revival is big for Stephen, the catering kitchen at The Lobby represents just as big an opportunity. Wow has been getting increasing requests from its customers to cater events at their homes, workplaces or for charities and they had to do the cooking for them alongside the regular restaurant operations.
"We don't have a catering kitchen in any of our restaurants. (Catering) is a niche that we haven't been full force in. The opportunities are large. I would say it could stretch into seven figures. We're probably doing about a half-million dollars right now (in catering). We think we could easily double that," he said.
Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association, said he was excited to hear Wow was expanding downtown. He said the company has a good track record with many fine establishments around Winnipeg.
"Doug is the right guy to get in there and make things happen. The Lobby didn't hit the ground running as it should have," he said.
Wow shut down its Pasta la Vista location in Cityplace in 2008, enabling Boston Pizza to move in. Three years later, True North Sports & Entertainment bought the Atlanta Thrashers and moved them to Winnipeg.
"If I had known the Jets were coming, we wouldn't have sold Pasta la Vista. Timing is everything," Stephen said.