Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The king of food
Late Oscar Grubert a North End guy who made a fortune with his eateries
I was 10 years old and Oscar Grubert was 29 in 1958 when we both discovered what success tasted like.
Oscar, the lawyer turned drive-through hamburger-stand owner, had invited my Free Press city editor father and my mom, among others, to meet Col. Harland Sanders at the opening of the city's first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise at Sherbrook and Notre Dame. Later that night, my parents brought home some of the truly finger-lickin'-good chicken from the Colonel's secret recipe for my kid brother David and me to sample.
Earlier that year, in answer to a letter of inquiry from Grubert, the white-haired Southern gentleman in the famous white suit showed up unannounced in the Winnipeg lawyer's office. He was peddling a franchise and Grubert was buying.
It would be that chicken -- not his original experiment flipping burgers on north Main Street with his partner and pal Bill Goldberg -- that would serve as the foundation for Champs Food Systems international food and beverage empire and Grubert's future family fortune.
Oscar Bert Grubert was 84 when he died earlier this month in Toronto, where he resided after selling 19 KFC Manitoba outlets to the company 23 years ago today. His passing was recorded in the National Post with only the humblest of obituaries, in keeping with his wishes. Yet for decades the hard-driving, tough-nosed but soft-hearted North End boy was Winnipeg's king of the restaurant industry -- from the 1960s right through the 1980s. The man owned KFC outlets and an ever-changing host of other food and beverage experiments -- remember Grubee's, Mama Trossi's, The Garden Creperie, Thomas Button's, G. Willaker's, T Bones, the Carlton Street Fish Market, Strawberries and Blue Jeans Cabaret?
The list and the experimenting in search of the next big franchise went on and on. Suffice to say that over time, Grubert would feed and water almost everyone in the city. And with his other corporate pillar, Mother Tucker's Food Experience, he would expand across Canada and the United States. At its peak in the 1980s, the Champs empire he shared with Goldberg employed more than 3,000 people in more than 50 North American restaurants and had annual revenue of more than $100 million.
Grubert even tried concert promotion. In 1966, he brought the Rolling Stones to town for the first time.
"With the Rolling Stones," he would say years later," all hell could have broken loose. My reputation could have been damaged. Mick Jagger was higher than a kite and I was out of my wits."
People trying to climb over the Grubert family home in Garden City to see if Mick was there added to the mayhem.
But Grubert was more than a Winnipeg boy who made good. Or even a good old-fashioned success story.
On Wednesday morning, the day after Beth Grubert emailed me to share the news of her dad's passing, I called back. Beth is the city's Queen of Desserts, the owner of Baked Expectations across the street from the Osborne Village Inn her father built as the Champs Motor Inn in the 1960s. By the time we spoke, I had discovered who her dad was from the Free Press archives. And from Oscar himself, in his own words. He spent his school days living in the North End, the early grades in the Depression era learning the lessons the street taught little Jewish boys, as he recounted in a 1984 Free Press interview.
"I had to get into several fights in order to protect myself and... more than that, to let people know that I wasn't afraid and rather I was proud of who I was."
But there were good times growing up on Robinson and Scotia streets. Most were centred on sports, particularly playing goalie like his friend, future Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Terry Sawchuk. Grubert was a self-confessed terrible student until he graduated near the top of his 1954 law class.
Today, the company he and the late Goldberg started has diversified. The remnants of the Champs restaurant empire -- the Tucker's restaurant chain in Ontario, a KFC in Grand Forks and a partnership with Winnipeg's Palomino Club -- are still administered in Winnipeg but headed out of Toronto by his son, Nolan.
The company is also involved in two Joe Sensor’s sports-themed restaurants in Minneapolis.
Oscar Grubert would tell anyone who asked that it was never money that drove him. What was important was acceptance by family, friends and peers.
His daughter, Beth, never shared the kind of finger-lickin' good success that made her father's fortune. She has never eaten KFC -- it's not kosher.
Wednesday she offered what sounded like the definition for success any father would want to hear.
"I was just driving and thinking of my dad," Beth said, "and realizing that the one thing I always felt was pride. I was so proud to be anywhere with my dad... It was a lot of fun to be his daughter."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 B1
Updated on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 2:56 PM CST: CLARIFICATION: Two photos that ran in Thursday’s paper on page B1 were incorrectly credited to Winnipeg Free Press archives. In fact, the photos should have been credited to Winnipeg Tribune fonds, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.
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