Lee Poworoznik is the general manager of the St. James Hotel — a fitting title when you consider the first thing Poworoznik did after graduating from bartending school 18 years ago was drive to the Portage Avenue landmark, present his newly minted certificate to the powers-that-be and ask if there were any openings in the Fox & Hounds Tavern, the hotel’s watering hole.
So, all’s well that ends well and they hired him on the spot and he’s been pouring drinks there ever since, right? Wrong.
I was actually retired when this one came up for sale... and basically I was bored and needed something to do. I’ve been busy — real busy — ever since.
"They turned me down flat," Poworoznik says with a laugh. "I told them that story when they interviewed me for the GM position three years ago; I said it was too bad because they could have had me way back when."
Although Poworoznik had a wealth of experience when he finally caught on at the St. James in 2011, his new position presented its fair share of challenges, he admits.
"I’d managed a lot of restaurants and nightclubs, so I like to think I knew what I was doing. In this business there are new trends almost every week and normally, it’s all you can do to keep up. But here it was almost like I had to regress."
Poworoznik says the Fox & Hounds is the definition of old school. A lot of the people who go there have been going there for an awfully long time, he says. They sit in the same spot and order the same thing, day after day after day.
"You can practically time your watch by them. And what I’ve learned from my time here is there are certain things in life you just don’t touch."
According to newspaper accounts, the St. James Hotel was "architecturally one of (the) most beautiful buildings" in the city when it opened along the All-Canada Highway, now 1719 Portage Ave., in 1928.
Not only did the two-storey structure’s 22 guest rooms offer "luxurious comfort," each one boasted — and here’s a novel idea for Winnipeggers suffering with frozen pipes — hot and cold running water.
Also, the hotel’s main floor, 200-seat beverage room was advertised as "one of the most modern beer parlors in Manitoba." Furnished with upholstered chairs and oak tables, it wouldn’t have looked much different on opening day than it did in 1989 when Lawrence Maksymetz and his partners became just the fourth group of owners in the venerable inn’s 86-year history.
The first time Maksymetz set foot in the St. James Hotel was the day he went there with his real estate agent, to see if it was the type of place he’d be interested in running.
"I’d already been in the hotel business for a number of years; I bought my first one in Ontario and operated it for seven years before buying another in Thompson," says Maksymetz, who celebrated his 25th anniversary at the hotel in January.
"I was actually retired when this one came up for sale — I retired at 45 — and basically I was bored and needed something to do. I’ve been busy — real busy — ever since."
When Maksymetz took over, regulars still referred to the beverage room as the Jimmy, for James. One morning Maksymetz was fiddling around in a back room when he noticed a door with the words "Fox & Hounds" etched on it. He figured that was a better-sounding moniker than Jimmy and, a week or so later, officially changed the name of the saloon.
Next on the slate were renovations. In June 1989, Maksymetz hired a designer whose mandate was to give the room more of an English-pub feel, in keeping with its new tag. Cheers was TV’s top-rated sitcom at the time and everybody decided an island bar like the one Sam Malone patrolled on Thursday nights would be a perfect fit.
Maksymetz was fortunate; besides the person in charge of the makeover, he also had another 20 or so "bosses" who added their two cents, every chance they got.
"We never closed during the four months of renos; we curtained off whatever part of the room we were working on and served customers on the other side, so people were constantly poking their heads in to see what was going on," he says, noting the biggest grumble he heard was from somebody wondering where the spittoon went.
"Everybody had an opinion; I don’t know how many times someone came up to me and said, ‘That’s never going to work.’ "
Once the overhaul was complete, Maksymetz and his designer went on a shopping trip to England, where they picked up the dozens of period paintings, antiques and fox paraphernalia that add to the room’s charm. (Not that the requisite, big-screen TVs and framed, team jerseys don’t have a charm all their own.)
Poworoznik likes to think of himself as a "burger guy." He has favourite nooks in every corner of town and he keeps regular tabs on the whereabouts of the Winnipeg Burger Club, a faction of foodies constantly on the hunt for this city’s premier patty.
So, when Poworoznik decided six months ago to create a dish that would put the Fox & Hounds on the burger map for years to come, he pulled out all the stops.
The wolf hound burger is six ounces of ground beef wedged between two grilled cheese sandwiches — the bottom layer made with Monterey Jack cheese and the top loaded with cheddar and bacon. It comes with the works, including caramelized onions, and is served with fries, all for $11.20 (add an extra $1 for buffalo chips and/or defibrillator).
"I think the wolf hound has stimulated more impulse orders than anything else on our menu," says Poworoznik, noting it’s almost impossible for servers to parade through the room with one on their platter without a few customers stopping them to ask, "Uh, what’s that?"