After nearly three-quarters of a century of serving prime ministers, professional athletes and celebrities of all kinds -- not to mention countless regular Winnipeggers -- Mary Kelekis is ready for a rest.
The face of C. Kelekis Restaurant, a Main Street institution since the mid-1940s, has decided to turn off the grill for good on Jan. 30 and retire.
"I've worked here all my life. It's a second home to me. (Closing) is a very difficult thing for me," said the soon-to-be 88-year-old.
In between serving customers Friday, Kelekis and her staff fielded a flood of phone calls from around town and the country from friends and fans hoping the rumours were false. Once those were dashed, they passed on their best wishes.
With none of her relatives eager to take over the family-run business, Kelekis thought the best thing to do was close down. She is open, however, to other options, including selling the place.
The story of the Kelekis landmark dates back almost a century. In 1913, Chris Kelekis left a Greek community in Turkey to follow Magdalene, the love of his life, to Canada. They married and had eight children -- son Leo, and seven daughters: Chryse, Fotina, Sophie, Evelyn, Isabel, Mary and Becky. The daughters worked in the restaurant and son Leo, who was a lawyer, took care of legal matters.
Chris -- the "C" in the restaurant's name -- started selling french fries, or "chips" as he called them, out of a Model T Ford in 1931. Soon after, he added hotdogs and corn on the cob to his menu.
From there, he opened a pair of virtually identical restaurants in the mid-1940s, one at the corner of Main Street and Selkirk Avenue and the present location a few blocks away at Main and Redwood Avenue. The former closed down in 1956 when the latter was expanded.
Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Food Services Association, said he was sad to be losing the most experienced voice in the industry.
"Mary is iconic, just like her restaurant. I can't get my head around all the changes she must have seen in society and how that impacts our industry. I went there with my dad when I was growing up. It's a place everybody has to go to," he said.
Winnipeg Free Press restaurant reviewer Marion Warhaft said certain places such as Kelekis Restaurant "are beyond normal reviewing. It's iconic. It's just part of the city's history. I grew up on their hotdogs. It's the sad passing of restaurants like Kelekis, Alycia's and Wagon Wheel."
Recently, a scene from the hockey movie, Goon, was shot at Kelekis. In the scene, the young hockey goon played by Seann William Scott is talking to his parents (his dad is played by Eugene Levy) about his hockey career.
As much as the wall of pictures recorded the famous people who visited, Kelekis was always about ordinairy people.
"I remember going to Kelekis as a little kid in the mid-'50s," recalled Darlene Dziewit. "We would place our orders for skinny fries from their front window. They were served in a small brown cardboard boat, and you had to have vinegar and salt with your chips. Sometimes, as an added special treat, we got hotdogs, always split, with the works. They were the best hotdogs I ever ate, and they snapped when you bit into them."
The head of another Winnipeg institution has Kelekis to thank for giving him his first taste of the restaurant business. Earl Barish, who runs Salisbury House, grew up on Aberdeen Avenue, just down the street from Kelekis.
"My very first job after school was to walk to Kelekis. I took out the garbage and cleaned up a little and they gave me a hotdog, fries and a drink. I've been eating a hotdog, fries and a drink in large quantities since then," he said.
Mary Kelekis has received many accolades during the years including the Order of Manitoba and the Press Club's President Award. She is a founding member of Folklorama, which debuted in 1970, serving as co-ordinator of the Greek Pavilion.
Sharing the memories -- now you share your own
NO visit to Kelekis is complete without checking its wall of fame.
More than 100 pictures of notable visitors during the years hang there. They include a pair of prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien; former premier Gary Filmon; former mayors Susan Thompson and Bill Norrie; hockey players Bobby Hull, his Hot Line linemate, Anders Hedberg, Hull's son, Brett, and Billy Mosienko; and entertainers Randy Bachman from The Guess Who and Let's Make A Deal host Monty Hall. Iconic Winnipeggers, such as businessman Izzy Asper and sculptor Leo Mol, also grace the wall.
The one rule for high-profile customers? Somebody from the restaurant has to ask you for your photo. If you offer an unsolicited one, it will end up in the office downstairs.
ONLY one Kelekis customer was ever associated with a "mania."
Pierre Trudeau stopped by many years ago at the height of Trudeaumania. Before he entered, RCMP officers staked out the place, some roads were closed off and security officers were everywhere.
"It was the first time somebody really wanted to come to a place in the North End," Mary Kelekis said. "He had a hotdog and I had a picture taken (with him)."
A few years later, Kelekis was out East when she heard the prime minister was nearby. Wanting to take another picture, she approached Trudeau's entourage and was quickly told by security that wasn't possible. The prime minister, however, had other ideas. "He said, 'I know the lady; please let her in.' He asked how the hotdogs were and how everybody was. He never forgot a damned thing. He remembered everything," she said.
We'd like to hear your memories of this North End institution. Share your recollections with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll publish a selection in SundayXtra. Here is an example:
"Back in the early '70s, I worked there while attending St. John's High School. I worked as a short-order cook in the back with Mr. Steve. I learned the secret of their great coleslaw and make it at all special gatherings! (I keep the recipe a secret.) I had a great time working there -- met a lot of interesting and famous people. Not only did I work there -- my mom retired from there and two sisters also worked there. We lived across the street on Redwood and Kelekis became our extended family. I often bump into Mary Kelekis at Folklorama gatherings and reminisce about the good old days. Kelekis, you will be missed!"
-- Celina (Horodynski) Thater