Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Upper crust

Family-run Gondola Pizza has been a slice of life for Winnipeggers since 1965

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As of Jan. 1, 2008, Gondola Pizza drivers will no longer be allowed to deliver food to the United States without a passport.

About 10 years ago, Gondola general manager Derek Loewen fielded a call from Winnipeg rock band Crash Test Dummies. The group had been on the road for months and were in the mood for some "home cooking."

"They were going to be as close as North Dakota so they asked if we could send a few pizzas down," Loewen says.

Good tip, we're guessing?

"Oh yeah -- pretty good."

Loewen wasn't surprised by the order. The local pizzeria, long acclaimed for its "incomparable" thin-crust pies, maintains an almost cult-like following.

"I get people contacting me from as far away as England, China, Australia... folks who've come to Winnipeg, sampled our pizza, and wonder if we'd ever consider setting up shop where they live," Loewen says.

Original owner Peggy Van Elslander already had a full plate the day her husband, Norm, opened Gondola's flagship franchise 41 years ago.

"It was February 1965, and I was at the hospital giving birth to our first child," she says, ending any argument over when the pizza chain began operations. (On its website, the current ownership lists 1962 as the start-up date.)

"That's probably because the previous restaurant where we opened was called La Gondola," Van Elslander explains of the still-there, dine-in location at 1292 Pembina Hwy. "We thought that was too much of a mouthful so we decided to change the name."

Loewen's father, Viktor, purchased Gondola from the Van Elslanders in the early 1980s.

"My own official association with the business has been since 1992," says Loewen, 35. "Although I pretty much grew up in the commissary, my father always told me I'd have to go work for somebody else before coming back into it."

Loewen heeded his father's advice, toiling in the financial industry for two years before a family emergency brought him back into the fold. "There was a serious injury to my father -- he was in one of our locations and was stabbed five times," says Loewen, himself a father of four. "He ended up being all right but needed some help."

In a highly competitive market where pizza joints are lined up like Domino's, Gondola makes its fair share of dough, selling between 15,000 and 20,000 pizzas a week.

"We're just a different pizza -- people have been trying to copy things like our crust for years," Loewen says. "For a little, family-run business to take on the Goliaths of the restaurant world is fantastic."

Still, one debate rages: who owns the better theme song -- Gondola ("Have a ball and try 'em all / Gondola Pizza Pie") or fellow native 'za-makers, Pizza Place ("I goooo to Pizza Place to get the flavour / of Italy / and so do we...")?

"Well, you know what -- I'm going to leave that question out there," Loewen says with a big smile.

"Admittedly, I can't even remember all the words to our tune but from time to time, I do get customers calling the answering service and singing it, hoping to land a free pizza."

* * *

Winnipeg's Got Talent!

Do you have fond memories of The Amateur Hour, which used to air on CJAY-TV in the late '60s and early '70s? Better yet, did you ever appear on the show or know anybody who did? Given the plethora of Idol-eriffic fare dominating TV screens these days, we thought it would fun to take a look back at Winnipeg's version of America's Got Talent. We'll be devoting a future Icons column to the program, so if you have any chestnuts you'd like to share, e-mail them to:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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