Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 10/4/2016 (1632 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Samantha Vlahos doesn’t get offended when online reviewers describe Pete’s Place, the homestyle Main Street restaurant she runs with her husband, Pete Vlahos, as "painfully plain," "outdated," "nothing to write home about" or — her favourite — "looks like a bomb shelter."
"Our parking lot’s whatever, the area’s meh, the building’s meh," Vlahos says, pausing to say "Thanks" and "See you next week" to a party of 11 headed back to the office after stopping by for lunch.
"So yeah, I agree we probably don’t have the best curb appeal. But the heart of this place has always been on the inside. We may have trouble pulling people through the door, but once they’re in, we’ve got ’em."
The couple’s restaurant lineage runs deep. Vlahos began waiting on tables at the age of 15 at the J & A Restaurant on Logan Avenue before moving on to such time-honoured gems as the Pembina Village Restaurant and the Thunderbird Drive-In on St. Mary’s Road, where she met her future husband. He was 13 years old when he started slinging burgers at Junior’s, 15 when he went to work for his father at Michael’s Pizza and 18 when he accepted a cooking position at Nick’s Inn in Headingley.
"He was raised in restaurants," says Vlahos, who also worked at Nick’s Inn for a spell.
'I agree we probably don't have the best curb appeal.But the heart of this place has always been on the inside'‐ Samantha Vlahos
"His dad owned restaurants, his brother owned restaurants… one of his brothers-in-law is at Dairi-Wip. Practically on our first date he said, ‘I’m going to open a restaurant one day, and that’s just the way it is.’"
That day arrived sooner than the couple anticipated. In February 2001, one year after they tied the knot, Pete, then 24, called it a day at Nick’s. Samantha — 23 at the time and a server at the White Tower restaurant on Roblin Boulevard — asked him what his plan was, since he didn’t have another job lined up and they had a six-month-old son and a mortgage. He told her there was nothing to be concerned about because he had his eye on a vacant space on Main Street.
"I think my exact quote when we came here with a Realtor for the first time was, ‘Are you on crack?’" Vlahos says with a chuckle.
"It was godawful. The walls were red and yellow, the floors and booths were orange… the countertop was a disgrace."
Undeterred, her husband signed the lease. Two months and umpteen cans of paint later, the brown-stuccoed building at 1777 Main St. reopened as Pete’s Place. Well, sort of. Because the couple spent most of their savings sprucing up the joint, they couldn’t afford to change their masthead right away, so the sign out front continued to read New York Burgers, the name of the former tenant, for five more months.
"It was ridiculous," Vlahos says.
"Forty-five minutes into our first day, I realized we didn’t even have an open sign. So I wrote ‘OPEN’ on some napkins and taped them to the windows, to let people know to come in... please."
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There’s a fellow in the foyer waiting to pay for his chicken fingers and salad. After retrieving his bank card from his wallet, he glances at a photo on the wall above the cash register and says to nobody in particular, "Is that for real?"
"That" is Pete’s Place’s ultimate fatboy. In a city already renowned for its burgers, the ultimate fatboy — five quarter-pound patties stacked one on top of another, individually layered with mustard, pickles, cheese and bacon — is a game-changer.
Vlahos credits a customer named Len — he’s part of a regular Wednesday morning breakfast club affectionately referred to as the "geezers," she says — as being the first person to tackle the behemoth on a bun.
"On a lark one day, he ordered a triple (fatboy), and it just kind of went from there," Vlahos says, pointing out a snapshot of Len tacked to her wall of fame.
"The guys he sits with week-in, week-out were egging him on, so the next time he came in he said, ‘Let’s go for five (patties)."
In January 2015, Vlahos was trying to come up with a scheme that would raise spirits in the middle of a "long, cold, crappy winter." A burger-eating contest might do the trick, she reckoned, so she invited customers down to try their hand, er, mouth at the ultimate fatboy. Gift certificates would be awarded to those whose action shots garnered the most "likes" on Facebook and Instagram.
Highlights included a person who polished off two ultimate fatboys in one sitting, Vlahos says, rolling her eyes. Honourable mention went to a guy in his 20s who washed his meal down with an ultimate omelette, which contains four large free-range eggs, bacon, ham, red peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and cheddar cheese.
(In case you’re wondering, the capacity at Pete’s Place is 55 — a tad fewer if everybody in the room loosens their belt at the same time.)
Vlahos is a bit concerned she hasn’t seen a customer named Eleanor in a while.
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"She had cancer a few years ago, then dementia kicked in, and the last I heard, she was at Victoria Hospital," Vlahos says of the woman she pegs to be in her 80s.
Sure, everybody working at Pete’s Place knows what Eleanor takes in her coffee. Or how she likes her eggs. But there’s more to the relationship than that. There have been occasions, Vlahos says, when staff members have taken an hour out of their day to make sure Eleanor got home safely after word got out she was habitually misplacing her keys. Vlahos has headed over a few times herself to help Eleanor change light bulbs or replace batteries — whatever needed doing.
"I guess that’s what I enjoy most — that Cheers-y, everybody-knows-your-name-thing we seem to have going on," Vlahos says, adding people are as apt to show up wearing pajamas as full wedding attire. (With Kildonan Park just down the street, Pete’s Place has become a popular pit stop on Saturday afternoons for bridal parties looking for a bite before posing for pictures.)
Last year, the children of a man and woman celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary told their parents they could choose any restaurant in Winnipeg to toast their special day. Instead of Hy’s, Rae & Jerry’s or any other tony steakhouse in town, they opted for Pete’s Place. This June, that same family will gather there again, this time to toast the memory of their father, who died a few months ago.
"Those are the sorts of things that make you feel good, because it was always Pete’s dream to have the type of place where people from all walks of life could be comfortable," Vlahos says.
"We’re not anything special, but this is still our baby. It’s our past, our future and one day, our retirement."
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“It goes in waves,” Samantha Vlahos says when asked what the most popular item on her and her husband’s menu is.
“Last week, it was (hot)dogs, the week before that it was chicken. Right now, everybody seems to want a Reuben, for some reason.”
Since Pete’s Place opened 15 years ago, the couple’s made-from-scratch soups have been another consistent draw. So much so, Vlahos has a list of customers she calls whenever their preferred potage is on the stove.
“I phone them up, tell them this week it’s cream of mushroom or borscht or whatever, and they literally show up with pails — I’m not kidding — to take a couple of batches home.”