Northern exposure Métis brothers put Thompson-style pizza on the map of Winnipeg’s many and varied regional pizza-menu options
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/02/2022 (188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg’s pizza crowd is well-served when it comes to varied approaches to their preferred pleasure. Shorty’s Pizza on Maryland Street offers fold-over, New York-style ’zas, Tommy’s Pizzeria on Corydon Avenue specializes in rectangularly-shaped, Detroit-style fare while Donald Street mainstay Chicago Phil’s, in keeping with its moniker, renders the same sort of deep-dish pie you’d expect to scarf down in the Windy City.
Until recently, however, locals would have had to drive a good, 800 kilometres due north if they had a hankering for a Thompson-style pizza.
Uh… a Thompson-style what?
“There are a fair number of ex-Thompsonites living in Winnipeg who know what we’re all about, but for sure, the first question we get from people who’ve never been up that way is, ‘What does Thompson have to do with pizza?’” says Jack Colombe, co-owner of the aptly-named Thompson Style Pizza, which opened inside the historic, 124-year-old Vendome Hotel at 308 Fort St. in mid-November.
Colombe, born and raised in the “Nickel City,” tells them it’s a thick-crust pie synonymous with Thompson’s Santa Maria Pizza & Spaghetti House, as iconic a dining spot as you’ll find in the province. Topped with a mountain of mozzarella, it boasts a tomato-based sauce that has a “nice sweetness to it, followed by a good kick.” Another element that sets a Thompson-style pie apart from the pizza pack is that accompanying slices of pepperoni or salami are generally shredded, versus whole, he explains.
“We’ve never weighed one ourselves but a customer did just that the other day, and told us his 15-incher came in at a shade over six pounds,” Colombe says, pausing to fetch a pickup order — through our mask we’re detecting the scent of pineapple — for a noon-hour customer.
“So yeah, definitely a meal-and-a-half.”
Colombe, 29, was 15 years old when he landed a part-time job at Pizza Hut. It wasn’t that he was necessarily interested in that line of work. Instead, because he was one of 10 siblings and because money was often tight, he needed a way to help pay for his sporting gear. Already a talented basketball player, he turned out to be as adept in a kitchen as he was in the paint, and was eventually promoted to shift manager.
Colombe was 19 when he joined his older brother Kenny in Winnipeg, where the latter was living after having graduated from the University of Manitoba. The move turned out to be short-lived. Within two weeks he was on a bus back to Thompson, having concluded “the big city” wasn’t his cup of tea.
Instead of returning to Pizza Hut, he successfully applied for a position at the aforementioned Santa Maria Pizza & Spaghetti House. He began dating one of the servers and when she and her daughter, now five, moved to Winnipeg in February 2020, a month before COVID-19 hit, he packed his bags and headed here, too.
He caught on at a Greek-run pizza joint at The Forks but was laid off in November 2020 owing to code-red restrictions associated with the pandemic. Concerned he wasn’t going to be able to pay his share of the household expenses, he reached out to the same brother he’d previously lived with in Winnipeg to seek his advice.
“Kenny has always been my role model — he’s 10 years older than me and is as good a father as he is a man — and when I lost my job, he presented me with three options,” he says. “He could help me find somewhere else to work, I could apply for EI or I could do what I knew best: make the same type of pizza I was making (at Santa Maria) and see if there was any demand for it in Winnipeg.”
As you may have already guessed, he went with Door No. 3.
The first thing Colombe did was head to the grocery store for ingredients to fashion his dough and sauce from scratch. While it’s true he baked a “million” Thompson-style pizzas during his tenure at Santa Maria, he was never privy to the family-run operation’s recipes, so he was basically winging it when it came to how much flour went into the crust.
He isn’t one to brag, but he happily reports he came close to nailing it on his first attempt; at least according to his girlfriend Skyler who, together with Kenny and Kenny’s son Jalan, served as his royal tasters. In January 2021 he began renting a commercial kitchen every Tuesday and Thursday evening at Riverview Community Centre, where interested parties could place an order for pickup.
As word spread, Colombe, who is Métis, started fielding calls from First Nations leaders interested in knowing if he wanted to take his show on the road. He smiles, recalling a March 2021 trip he and Kenny made to Lake St. Martin First Nation, 225 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, where they spent an entire weekend turning out pizza after pizza for members of that community.
Sales remained strong at Riverview. By last summer, however, he had decided working two days a week and the odd weekend out of town wasn’t going to cut it in the long run; he needed to find a place to cook full time.
“I live on McPhillips (Street) and originally hoped to be somewhere in the North End,” he says. “Those are my people and I felt I could maybe make a difference in the community by sponsoring youth programs and stuff. For a while we thought we were going to be on Arlington, north of the bridge, but after that deal fell through, Kenny reached out to the owner of the Vendome, who he knew already, to see if he was interested. He was and, like they say, the rest is history.”
OK, not exactly.
Jack and Kenny signed a lease agreement in September 2021 but because Jack wasn’t fully vaccinated yet, their grand opening was pushed back to Nov. 19, to comply with provincial regulations.
The brothers were a bit concerned the adage “out of sight, out of mind” might apply to them, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Thompson Style Pizza, which can be found on Skip the Dishes under Bleachers Dinner and Thompson Style Pizza, did more than $3,000 in sales during its first week of operation, a number that increased exponentially following a series of cheeky Facebook promotions.
“Kenny’s the one responsible for all that, he has a pretty good sense of humour,” Colombe says, citing a post that invited actor Woody Harrelson, who was in Winnipeg filming a movie, to pop by for a pie on the house. (In the accompanying, 11-second clip, a box marked “For Woody!” can be seen spinning round and round inside a pizza warmer on the front counter.)
A week or so later, they posted another Facebook message, that one reading “Astum Pimichisook (Come and Eat)” and directed it at Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear, who is from Ochapowace Nation in Saskatchewan and was in town for a game versus the Jets.
“Kenny knows (Bear’s) brother and texted him directly, so we were pretty sure Ethan was going to show up, though he never did,” Colombe says, agreeing perhaps the last thing an NHL-er needs before hitting the ice is a 15-inch, meat-lovers special.
Besides build-your-own pies, Thompson Style Pizza currently offers a half-dozen specialty pizzas, including one that brings a tear to Colombe’s eye every time he prepares it. The Shane Special (pepperoni, salami, ham, bacon, green pepper and onion) is named for his brother Shane, who committed suicide in 2018, at age 33. Down the road, he and Kenny plan to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of every Shane Special to mental-health services in the province.
On a lighter note, the pair is getting set to introduce a raft of non-pizza selections to the menu, including wings, ribs and fried mozzarella sticks. They’re also toying around with the idea of a bannock crust, in concert with a restaurant pal of theirs in Brandon.
“Lots of people followed us over from Riverview, and we’re also seeing new customers each and every day,” Colombe says, noting the biggest compliment he’s received to date came from a Thompson resident who wanted 10 pies shipped north on the next train out of town.
“I’ve been putting my heart and soul into this for a little over a year now and the response we’ve been getting has been nothing short of amazing. I could go on but if I do, I’m afraid I’m gonna start crying.”