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A Salisbury House divided

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Salisbury House is an enigma wrapped in a griddle of fried onions, stuffed inside a mysteriously fluffy, white bun.

On one hand, the Winnipeg restaurant chain is not just a business, but one of the cultural institutions that make this city unique. Sals unapologetically served up a rancher — an egg sandwich with back bacon and fried sausage — long before the current fetishization of all things cured and carnivorous. Anywhere else in North America, a nip is not a burger, but an arcane racial slur.

And although non-Manitobans may view any given Salisbury House outlet as just another casual-eatery franchise, individual Sals locations have taken over the role of traditional neighbourhood diners, where generations of people simply hang out and talk.

On the other hand, Salisbury House is a lot like any faceless restaurant chain in any other city in North America. Pulled pork, quesadillas and blueberry roiboos tea occupy space on the current something-for-everyone Sals menu, alongside traditional items like double cheese nips, blueberry pancakes and wafer pie.

Much of the food at Sals is not prepared on site, but at a central commissary on Bannister Road, off Route 90 up in Brooklands. Winnipeg restaurant-goers who seek out unique experiences — food made from scratch on the premises, sourced from local or artisanal producers — are more likely to turn to an independently operated burger shop than a Sals if they just want to scarf down fast food.

As a result, Salisbury House does not fit in to either side of a modern restaurant-culture dichotomy that pits hyperlocalism and culinary creativity against corporate ownership and homogeneity. Sals is both local and corporate. Its food is unique to Winnipeg, but not unique in the sense the chain operates out of 17 different locations in the city.

This dual identity means Salisbury House has no natural allies among the Instagram-abusing food geeks who normally run to the rescue of any local culinary institution that winds up threatened in any way.

If the only Sals in Winnipeg was located on Esplanade Riel, a virtual army of Guy Fieri wannabes would take to the Internet, decrying the potential end of the chain’s lease. But since there are 16 other Sals outlets in Winnipeg, the same people who raced to eat one last clubhouse at the Wagon Wheel, one last Yaleburger at Kelekis and one last plate of meatballs at the Paddlewheel have little motivation to care about Sals on the pedestrian bridge over the Red River.

To be clear, the City of Winnipeg has not ended any lease with the Salisbury House chain. The original deal between the city and Sals was a five-year lease that began in 2005, after city council’s executive policy committee selected Sals to operate the new restaurant space at Esplanade Riel. The only other bidder put forward a proposal that called for subsidies from the city, easily making the Sals proposal to spend a modest $2,000 in monthly rent by far and away the superior option.

In 2010, the original Sals lease for Esplanade Riel expired. For reasons known only to the city, negotiations over a new lease were put off instead of continuing the same arrangement.

In the real-estate world, most leases include an overholding clause that determines what happens when a new lease is not negotiated. Sometimes, tenants wind up locked in to their lease for another term or a proportion of that term. Often but not always, they must pay higher rent during this overholding period.

Salisbury House, however, continued to pay $2,000 a month. In the fall, when Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith made this known to the public, city spokeswoman Michelle Bailey said the real-estate division was still in the process of negotiating a new lease.

But the city could not explain why it took two years to negotiate, or why the restaurant space was not offered up to other potential tenants during the interim. This was bizarre, considering city hall was already enveloped in a quagmire of real-estate-related scandals at the time.

Given the political climate at city hall, which has ordered up a real-estate audit, you would expect Winnipeg’s real-estate division to do everything in its power to be transparent. And in January, officials partly fulfilled that expectation by issuing a call for proposals for other entities interested in occupying the restaurant site.

The two-week window for completing the proposal, however, seems a little tight if the city is seriously interested in marketing the site. But property director Barry Thorgrimson contested that idea this past week, telling council’s property committee it is not difficult to put forward a plan for the Esplanade Riel plaza now that a restaurant actually exists in the space.

Salisbury House president and CEO Earl Barish, however, said he believed he had a deal in place with the city in late 2012. Barish told Free Press business reporter Murray McNeill he was seeking a rent reduction, given the difficulties associated with operating a restaurant on the middle of a bridge.

To be fair to Barish, it’s not easy convincing some Winnipeggers to walk anywhere, let alone in the middle of the winter. And given the presence of all those other Salisbury House locations in Winnipeg, if it’s simply a nip you crave — and not a view of the Red River — there are easier ways to obtain one.

On the other hand, Salisbury House doesn’t compensate the city for the placement its logo on Esplanade Riel. The restaurant chain does not pay the city any sponsorship fees for the highly visible red sign, city spokeswoman Bailey said. While the financial benefit of this advertising is intangible, there’s no question this sign does add some value to a $2,000 monthly rent payment.

Since a small or independent restaurant operator may have no need to advertise in this manner, it may not be necessary for the city to take the advertising into account when it makes a decision about what should occupy the Esplanade Riel space.

A better question is what form of amenity should be there. There is no reason it must be a restaurant at all.

The ongoing review of Manitoba’s liquor regulations should make it easier for licensed venues to sell beer, as NDP Cabinet Minister Dave Chomiak has hinted at loosening up food-alcohol ratios for restaurants.

But he also suggested venues that offer "unique experiences" may be allowed special opportunities to sell alcohol.

At public squares in downtown Montreal, you can buy a beer from tiny kiosks that also sell coffee and pop. It seems so civilized compared to Winnipeg.

If the city decides to replace Sals with something more urbane on Esplanade Riel, that should not be taken as a slight to the chain, which will always occupy a special place in many Winnipeggers’ hearts. The question is whether Winnipeg’s real-estate division has already made up its mind.


Updated on Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 10:11 AM CST: corrects typo

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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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