Restaurateur family has eyes on the pies Pizza Express & Submarine making return to Winnipeg after more than 20 years

Gus Vasilarakis bid adieu to his Winnipeg pizza oven, and the city’s restaurant scene, for good — or so he thought.

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Gus Vasilarakis bid adieu to his Winnipeg pizza oven, and the city’s restaurant scene, for good — or so he thought.

His son Tony has other plans. More than two decades since the family sold their previous Winnipeg restaurants, they’re bringing Brandon-based Pizza Express & Submarine back to Manitoba’s capital with an expanded menu and some awards under their belt.

“I keep pulling (Gus) back in to help me out,” Tony, 33, said with a laugh.

The two have been commuting on a near-daily basis between Winnipeg and Brandon for the past couple months. There’s construction to oversee and signs to erect at 3116 Roblin Blvd. (a former Carbone Coal Fired Pizza).

“Expansion was kind of always in my mind,” Tony said. “Winnipeg is a logical next step.”

The pizza, pasta and sandwich eatery boomed in Brandon during the pandemic, Tony said. A fleet of roughly 12 drivers delivered meals, and when possible, customers picked up their own orders.

Still, COVID-19 pushed back Pizza Express’s arrival in Winnipeg — Tony said he’s been dreaming of this for years.

“(When) COVID happened… we needed to kind of pump the brakes,” he said.

Until Tony vocalized his ambitions, Gus didn’t foresee Pizza Express returning to Winnipeg. The 58-year-old has worked at the family restaurant since its 1982 inception.

“(My family) said, ‘We don’t want to work for strangers,’” Gus said. “We didn’t really have a lot of experience in managing and operating (a business), but we knew how to cook.”

Gus’s father Antonios was a carpenter by trade. Antonios worked on hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba to support the family, flying home to Greece often to visit his wife and kids.

In 1979, Gus immigrated to Brandon with his mom and brother; Antonios had saved enough money for them.

“The very first day that I came to Canada, (my uncle) came and picked me up and goes, ‘I’ll show you around,’” Gus said. “He took me to work.”

Thus began Gus’s life in Brandon pizza places. The 14-year-old worked in Romana Pizza, his uncle’s eatery. A different local restaurant employed his brother.

When Gus’s uncle sold his business, Gus’s father suggested the family begin its own venture.

“My mom (Kalliopi) was an excellent cook,” Gus said.

She’d make pizza at home. All original Pizza Express recipes stem from her.

The Vasilarakis family acquired a building on 10th Street in Brandon — which they continue to use — and began pumping out food.

Gus’s uncle helped the family start. A cousin from Baltimore visited to teach them to make sub sandwiches (he had a restaurant in the United States).

“Brandon is amazing for our family and for our business,” Gus said.

Even so, in 1990, he set his sights on Winnipeg. He, his wife Antoinette and Tony moved, selling Brandon’s Pizza Express to a friend. The first Winnipeg location opened on Portage Avenue.

“It was really, really hard trying to (make it),” Gus said. “(Customers) wouldn’t necessarily just want pizza.”

Quickly, he and Antoinette expanded the offerings. In came Greek options, like a classic Greek salad, and veal cutlets and more pastas. The family invented a full menu for the eatery’s roughly 104-seat dining room.

Success followed, allowing Gus to open another Winnipeg spot — for takeout and delivery — on St. Mary’s Road.

Gus said someone approached him to buy the Pizza Express locations in 1998. By that time, he and Antoinette had three young children in Winnipeg, but their family was in Brandon. They wanted to move.

Gus sold, bought back the Pizza Express in Brandon, and moved home.

“We’ve been kind of bugging them all the time about coming back,” said Shelley Mitchell.

She’d enter the Portage Avenue location and order pizzas with sour cream cooked on top — a feature she took from her time living in Brandon.

“Pretty much every time we go (to Brandon now) we bring back a pizza to have here in Winnipeg,” said Mitchell, who moved to the capital city more than 30 years ago. “It is so good.”

Charlyn Azure has debated driving to Brandon solely to get the eatery’s beef and buttons sub sandwich.

“I just crave it all the time,” Azure, who is eight months pregnant, said.

She’s from Brandon and visits family regularly. When she does, she makes sure to stay until the restaurant opens so she can grab food, she said.

“I’ve been searching for a place like that (in Winnipeg),” Azure said, adding she hasn’t found anything close. “(I’ve) been saying for years, ‘I think it would do so well out here.’”

The Vasilarakis family aims to open Winnipeg’s Pizza Express next month. In December, Tony was talking to third-party delivery apps, though the company plans to have its own drivers in the city.

The restaurant’s focus will be on takeout and delivery, Tony said. Pizza Express won an award from Family Enterprise Xchange Manitoba in 2017 and has been a reader’s choice winner in the Brandon Sun for the past six years.

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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