Tough but tender: Restaurant owner Mary Kelekis dies at 94

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She was a member of the Order of Canada, a co-founder of the world’s longest running multicultural festival and a devoted sports fan.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/09/2019 (1078 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

She was a member of the Order of Canada, a co-founder of the world’s longest running multicultural festival and a devoted sports fan.

For most Winnipeggers, Mary Kelekis’s legacy lies in the 70 years she spent working at (and then running) her father’s Kelekis Restaurant. She died last week at age 94, six years after she retired and shuttered the iconic North End family business.

“She worked hard, as my mother and all my aunts did, but she was sort of the remaining figure after the rest of them had retired or passed away,” Mary’s nephew, Jim Pappas, said. 

Mary Kelekis, owner of Kelekis Restaurant and co-founder of Folklorama, has died at 94. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Her sister Becky, who recently turned 89, is the last surviving sibling of the seven Kelekis children. In the restaurant and at home, the family was a force, Pappas remembers. For most of her life, Mary worked seven days a week alongside her sisters Chryse, Sophie, Evelyn and Isabel, with help from their brother Leo.

“They were all such individuals as women. They were tough, but they were tender,” he said, recalling how they worked together to run the business and raise their kids. 

“We had five other mothers, and they all would tell us what to do, but every one of them was a powerhouse as a human being.”

Jeff De Booy/The Winnipeg Free Press archives C. Kelekis was beloved for its legendary hotdogs, burgers and fries.

Mary could keep up a gruff exterior, but she was soft-hearted and maintained lifelong friendships with her high school classmates, Pappas said. She was one of the founders of Folklorama and managed to find time to volunteer between working and being with family. She loved being an aunt, and as a season ticket holder for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Winnipeg Jets, she’d take the kids to games to cheer on the home teams. 

Her approach to work lives on in many former employees and customers of Kelekis Restaurant.  

“The year we closed the restaurant, we had an outpouring from people who had worked there over the years,” Pappas said. Twenty-five former employees returned to help out the beloved and bustling restaurant in its final weeks, before Mary closed the doors in January 2013.

C. Kelekis Restaurant and its patrons in 1989. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“These were women who had other jobs who were coming to help us to get through the last six weeks, and it was a trial. Let me tell you. When it was over, I had laryngitis for eight weeks. These people were very connected, and many of them still are,” Pappas said.

For Garth Riley, Kelekis Restaurant was a “welcome mat” back to Winnipeg, and Mary Kelekis was his unlikely mentor.

“Mary wasn’t quick to trust people. I would say she was the toughest of them all… she wouldn’t suffer fools lightly,” Riley said from his home in Toronto.

WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Longtime customer Dominic LaRosa shakes hands with Mary Kelekis.

The 59-year-old grew up eating at Kelekis with his grandparents and started working there as a busboy when he was a teenager, only to be fired after a patron caught him muttering under his breath about the frustrations of having five different bosses. 

It was a turning point in his life, he says now. The sisters agreed to let him come back to work, taught him how to work hard under pressure and treat customers like family. He credits them with helping him develop the business acumen he eventually put toward becoming senior vice-president of a Toronto medical supply company.

“I always admired them for giving me a second chance,” Riley said.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mary Kelekis

“My whole career, in whatever industry I’ve been in, has always been anchored back to my experience of working with that family of five bosses.”

Until the restaurant closed, it was the first place he’d visit upon returning to the city for business. He’d stop in to see Mary before seeing his grandparents, and when he brought his future wife to meet his family, they ate at Kelekis first.

“There are thousands of Winnipeggers that have that same story, but for me… how they did business and how they ingratiated themselves to past employees and people who were customers was life-changing. It’s still a cornerstone for how I run our company today.”

On Kelekis Restaurant’s final day open, when she was 88, Mary told the Free Press she was content with all the work she’d put in.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I’ve put in 70 years, from the time I was in high school. But it’s been a wonderful 70 years.”

A funeral service is set to take place Sept. 13 at Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca  

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

History

Updated on Saturday, September 7, 2019 5:25 PM CDT: Corrects typo

Updated on Saturday, September 7, 2019 11:13 PM CDT: Edited

Updated on Monday, September 9, 2019 11:03 AM CDT: Adds images.

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