Well-done and rare A retro-luxe throwback outlier in the ever-changing tastes and trends of the volatile restaurant landscape, Portage Avenue’s iconic Rae and Jerry’s Steak House emerges from difficult pandemic challenges just in time to celebrate its 65th birthday
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/07/2022 (205 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Rae and Jerry’s Steak House turns 65 this year, and owner Steve Hrousalas is hopeful the Portage Avenue mainstay’s milestone birthday will be more joyful than the last two.
“Awful… brutal,” is how the 78-year-old father of two and grandfather of three describes the effect COVID-19 had on his 330-seat locale, which he purchased from the founding owners 47 years ago. Like so many others in the hospitality industry, he and his veteran staff were forced to pivot, by offering delivery and curbside pickup in an effort to stay afloat. Problem was, a 20-ounce T-bone and 8-ounce filet mignon don’t travel across the city as well as, say, a pizza or bucket of fried chicken.
“Let’s be honest, the product coming directly out of the kitchen isn’t going to be the same as the one Door Dash or Skip (the Dishes) brings to you,” says Hrousalas, seated in one of his timeless dining room’s trademark leatherette chairs. Things were a little tricky and admittedly, there were a few hiccups along the way. For the most part, however, customers, many of whom have been frequenting the Polo Park-area resto for years, if not decades, were very understanding, he says.
“Thankfully, we’re finally fully open again and people seem as happy to be back as we are to serve them. Hey, you couldn’t ask for a nicer 65th birthday than that, right?”
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Hrousalas’s mother Alexandra was 24 years old when she came to Winnipeg from Greece in 1939, to marry Peter Hrousalas, who’d moved here from the same part of the country as she had a few years earlier. Their son, who speaks Greek fluently, likes to tell the story of how the boat his mother was on was sunk by a German warship, and that she somehow managed to save her trousseau before being rescued from a life raft by a passing freighter.
Hrousalas, one of three siblings, was 12 years old when he started working part time for his father, who owned and operated a series of dining spots, including the Paris Restaurant in downtown Winnipeg. That led to stints at the original Junior’s on Main Street — now VJ’s Drive Inn — and later, the Red Top Drive Inn on St. Mary’s Road.
He graduated from Nelson McIntyre Collegiate in 1962 and spent the next three years studying business at the University of North Dakota. After getting his degree he embarked on a seven-week “career” as a bank teller, followed by a seven-year stint with the Hudson’s Bay Company. By the time he was through at the Bay, he was managing all of the chain’s in-store restaurants, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Those dessert glasses filled with Jell-O at the old Paddlewheel? Yeah, that was him.
In 1975, Hrousalas was living on the top floor of a Strathcona Street apartment block, in a suite that offered a bird’s-eye view of Rae and Jerry’s expansive parking lot. It seemed to be full of cars, all the time, he noticed, and one afternoon he stepped inside and asked to speak with John Rae and Gerald (Jerry) Hemsworth, the restaurant’s owners. Aware that each man was in his 60s, and that they’d been in the business for closing in on 40 years (the pair opened the original Rae and Jerry’s as a lunch nook inside Brathwaite’s Drug Store at Portage and Vaughan in the late 1930s), he asked them point-blank if they would ever consider selling their namesake resto.
Perhaps, Rae told him, to which Hrousalas shot back something along the line of, in that case, name their price. Rae and Hemsworth did just that about a week later, and after convincing a pal of his named John Petrakos to go in on the deal with him, backed by their respective parents, Hrousalas became the new owner of Rae and Jerry’s.
Did they ever consider changing the name on the towering parking lot sign to Steve & John’s? Not on your life, Hrousalas says. Rather, they left everything as is, right down to the wall-to-wall carpeting, which Rae instructed him during the transition phase could be any colour he chose, so long as it was red.
Hrousalas, who bought Petrakos’s share in 1978, says the change of command was made seamless by the fact they retained 99 per cent of the existing staff, including a “lovely lady” named Helen Stoudt. As house manager, she convinced the cooks, servers… even the cleaning staff to give “these two young whippersnappers” a chance to prove they knew what they were doing, Hrousalas remembers.
Dealing with COVID-19 was definitely challenging, but it wasn’t the first time Hrousalas faced adversity. He shakes his head over what it was like to manage a restaurant the size of his in the early 1980s, when interest rates were hovering above 20 per cent and discretionary income was almost non-existent. Freshly married at the time, all he could do was sit back and watch, as his sales plummeted by half a million dollars in the space of 10 months.
Then there was the smoking ban inside Manitoba restaurants and bars that went into effect in 2003. He was definitely pleased that he no longer had to get undressed in his garage at the end of a long shift so the smell of cigarette smoke on his clothing didn’t get inside his house. At the same time, he was on the receiving end of endless criticism from sales types who, like a scene out of Glengarry Glen Ross, had been descending on Rae and Jerry’s for so-called martini lunches that typically lasted into the evening, and seemingly called for one cigarette — or cigar — after another.
“Let’s be honest, the product coming directly out of the kitchen isn’t going to be the same as the one Door Dash or Skip (the Dishes) brings to you.” – Steve Hrousalas
Of course, a restaurant doesn’t stay in business for 65 years without doing something right. There isn’t a wall of fame to be found, not the sort that used to grace dearly departed Kelekis, but if one existed, Hrousalas would have little trouble filling it with 8-by-10s of famous faces. Umpteen Hollywood actors have dined there, John Candy among them, as have hockey legends such as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Before the Winnipeg Blue Bombers relocated from Canad Inns Stadium to IG Field, a few dozen players and coaches typically huddled together at Rae and Jerry’s for their pre-game meal. (What does a burly, 300-pound lineman eat a few hours before kickoff? Anything he wants.)
“Steve’s contribution as both a restaurateur and as a long-standing mentor to existing and future restaurateurs cannot be measured highly enough,” says Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
While restaurants tend to come and go — the average lifespan is about five years, according to industry experts — having a decades-old staple such as Rae and Jerry’s in the city’s midst goes a long way toward creating memories that can be shared from generation to generation, he feels.
“In turn, that creates a culture of dining out that is passed on through families, and becomes an important way to support the economy while still enjoying time away from the rigmarole of your day-to-day life,” he adds. (If you don’t believe Jeffrey, you can believe former Free Press restaurant critic Marion Warhaft, who once wrote of Rae and Jerry’s, “Families often have reunions here, because the menu has something for everyone; the carnivores among us can sink their teeth into red meat, and the kosher among us can order fish.”)
At age 78, Hrousalas continues to report for duty bright and early, seven days a week. Now that the restaurant isn’t open for lunch — another fallout from COVID, owing to staffing levels — he can lounge around in shorts and a golf shirt while doing paperwork, before slipping into trousers and a blazer to welcome the dinner crowd, many of whom he knows by name or, at the very least, what table they prefer to sit at.
He admits the subject of retirement does come up now and then, and he’s also been approached by umpteen developers, interested in bulldozing the 2.23-acre lot to erect condos or some such thing.
“At the end of the day, I still enjoy coming to work, and I think Gayle, my wife, likes it too,” he says with a wink. “I was home all day not too long ago and at one point she jokingly said if I thought I was getting lunch, I’d better think again. ‘In that case,’ I said, ‘I guess I’d better head to the restaurant.’”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.