Update: Because of today's less-than-ideal conditions, this evening's Bannatyne Carnaval festivities have been moved indoors. A 13-piece band will perform live at Hermano's Restaurant & Bar, 179 Bannatyne Ave., beginning at 9 p.m.
This weekend, the East Exchange serves as the backdrop for Bannatyne Carnaval -- a two-day street festival reminiscent of Brazil's annual Carnaval, one of the largest outdoor celebrations on the planet.
Bannatyne Carnaval kicked off Friday and continues until midnight this evening. The bash, now in its third year, takes place on Bannatyne Avenue between Rorie Street and Waterfront Drive. Two free stages are showcasing a variety of acts, including Marco Castillo, Trio Bembe and Papa Mambo.
If you work up an appetite doing the samba, well, there's plenty of grub, too, thanks to the get-together's principal sponsors: Hermano's Restaurant & Wine Bar, Corrientes Argentine Pizzeria and Carnaval Brazilian BBQ. Not only are all three establishments located within walking distance of the festival site, all three are owned and operated by the event's founder, Noel Bernier.
Which leads us to our first question: What is a guy like Bernier, a former gas company big wig whose only exposure to Latin American culture when he was a kid came from Tintin books and the Barry Manilow hit Copacabana, doing throwing a party more suited to the streets of Sao Paulo than the 'Peg? Would you believe the answer begins some 10,000 kilometres north of the equator?
Bernier is the president and chief partner of FB Hospitality, a company -- some say empire -- that also operates Prairie 360 and Barley Brothers. For years, people have been asking Bernier what the FB on his business card stands for. They are almost always surprised when they learn it is short for Fisher Branch, the Interlake town he grew up in.
"No, not exactly," Bernier says with a laugh when he is asked if any dining spots he frequented as a youngster influenced his decision to get into the hospitality biz later in life. "About the greatest culinary experience we had (in Fisher Branch) was when my parents ordered Chinese food on Friday night.
"Or, if I was ever injured badly enough that I had to get stitched up, that always turned out lucky, because there was a fried chicken place near the hospital where we'd grab a bucket on the way home."
Bernier entered the labour force immediately after graduating from Fisher Branch Collegiate. Following stints in the oil and grain industries, he caught on at Superior Propane, where he eventually worked his way up to the position of regional executive. That was the job title he held in 2006 when a sports tournament, of all things, got him thinking about a career shift, yet again.
The 2006 FIFA World Cup was held in Germany. Bernier, a divorced father of two, wanted his sons, 9 and 11 at the time, to experience the passion soccer fanatics had for their favourite sides. So he pulled them out of school for a few mornings that June to take in matches at different cultural centres around town.
"Back then, about my only connection to South America was the countries I had in my (World Cup) office pool," Bernier says. "But after seeing the excitement generated by fans of nations like Brazil and Argentina, the entrepreneur side of me started thinking I should rent a hall the next time the World Cup rolled around, where we could show all the games on a bunch of big-screen TVs."
But when Bernier started doing his homework, he quickly realized if he was going to go to all that trouble for a month's worth of business, he may as well bite the bullet and open a restaurant.
A few months later, Bernier and one of his buddies travelled to South America. The trip was prompted by a pair of factors: a) Bernier had just started dating his fiancée, Najara Barros, and he wanted to learn more about Brazil, the country she grew up in. And b) Bernier's pal had recently entered into a new relationship, as well, so the two decided the journey would serve as a fond farewell to their bachelor days.
Bernier describes the holiday as a life-altering experience.
"Before we went, the only image I had of Latino cultures came from TV and pop culture, which left me with the impression that everywhere we went was going to be violent, corrupt or both. And that everybody would be sitting around all day, eating spicy food.
"Except what I discovered was this highly civilized society, where people were eating steak three times a day, cooked over charcoal, or enjoying some of the greatest pizzas ever made. It completely changed my view of South America, and when I got home, I decided I wanted to showcase that culture and cuisine in the highest possible sense."
Hermano's Restaurant & Wine Bar, billed as a South American steak house, opened at 179 Bannatyne Ave. in October 2009. Corrientes, which specializes in thin-crust pizzas and empanadas, and Carnaval -- meat, meat and more meat -- came along three years later. (Prairie 360 and Barley Brothers both opened in 2013.)
"The way we rolled them out, one after another, to the public, it probably looked like this series of conquests. But every single thing we've done, except for Barley Brothers, happened at exactly the same time, up here," Bernier says, pointing to his noggin. "There were a lot of cool things I wanted to do early on -- heck, we bought a Brazilian-style barbecue two-and-a-half years before we opened Carnaval -- but we had to wait because I'm not from wealth and I simply didn't have enough money.
"But if I've learned anything in the last six years, it's that this business isn't about money but about passion. You really have to love what you're doing, because there are days when it's hard -- bloodshed hard."
There are also days when it also has a lot in common with parenting, he continues. Such as when people ask Bernier which of his five restaurants (make that six when a second Barley Brothers location opens on Pembina Highway next month) he likes best.
"I tell them it's impossible to pick one because it really is like kids -- they're all a little different, but you love them all equally," Bernier says. "So of course you take offence when somebody says something bad about your kids. But sometimes your kids misbehave, and it is what it is."
That said, Bernier couldn't wipe the smile off his face the day a world-class entertainer gave a shout-out to one of his "kids."
"Michael Bublé came into Hermano's practically incognito, the night before his show," Bernier says in reference to the singer's August 2010 performance at the MTS Centre. "The next day, during the press conference, he asked the reporters who were there, 'Have you guys been to Hermano's? It's fantastic.' And then during the concert, he talked about us again. I mean, you can't get a better plug than that." (If you want to be a Grammy Award winner, you have to eat like a Grammy Award winner; for his entree, Bublé ordered the baby Cabrera, a 12-ounce rib-eye seasoned with Hermano's signature spice rub.)
And sure, the business-side of Bernier hopes people attending this weekend's get-together pop into one of his downtown restaurants for a bite or drink while they're enjoying the festivities. But that's not why he and his partners (all of whom have ties to Fisher Branch, incidentally) started Bannatyne Carnaval in the first place.
"The west Exchange is obviously well-known for its boutiques and restaurants, and for things like the Cube and Red River College," Bernier says. "But the East Exchange, where I live and work, is still a bit of a secret. It's a beautiful neighbourhood, too, and I still get shivers when I walk to The Forks and see the Scottish settlers' monument on the roundabout at Waterfront and Bannatyne.
"So the intention was to create a festival all our own, and have one weekend a year when we could invite everybody down and show off this part of the city."
For more information on Bannatyne Carnaval, go to bannatynecarnaval.ca.