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Stick a fork in Perkins’ restaurants: They’re officially done in Winnipeg.
This month, three former locations of the American chain — on Regent Avenue, Portage Avenue and McPhillips Street — will be rebranded as RnR Family Restaurants, with locally focused menus, a move the new local ownership group hopes will revitalize the diners while retaining the old-school charm that made them popular in the first place.
"Hopefully, people who always have eaten with us, people who once did, and people who never have will come and see what we have to offer," said Roger Perron, one of the partners, who first became an investor in Perkins in 1993. "We want to provide good quality food for our diners, and we’ll have the same friendly staff as always."
With the change, which became official with the launch of a new web presence and the hoisting of a new sign outside the Portage restaurant Tuesday, there are officially no Perkins restaurants left in Winnipeg, a shift that wasn’t entirely unpredictable.
For several years, Perkins was struggling not only locally but at the international level: In August 2019, its parent company filed for bankruptcy for the second time in under a decade, and the Perkins brand was sold off to breakfast chain Huddle House for $51 million. Dozens of Perkins restaurants are still operating in the U.S.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, the general partner in charge of all the local Perkins shut four down last year, telling the Free Press of the old Henderson Highway spot that, "Over the course of 30 years that the location has been there … they get tired, they get stale, you start to see the business drop off and you need to make a business decision, so we opted to close them." In Canada, there are seven locations of the restaurant left, six in Ontario and one in Saskatchewan.
Shortly thereafter, Perron said the partners in the Portage location decided they wanted to stay open, and voted that general partner out. The same was done on McPhillips and Regent.
For the last year, those three locations were still operating under the Perkins banner, but Perron said it was decided last month that to go on strong, the restaurants needed a change: the parent brand hadn’t been helpful since the changeover in local management and the menu, Perron said, felt stuck in a rut.
The renewed brand — RnR, for Rest and Relaxation — will look to maintain longtime customers while adding new options, like enhanced vegetarian and gluten-free items to entice those most crucial audiences: millennials and families.
"We were always very popular with seniors," said Perron. "For us, we want to change the menu to make it more appealing to young people, but we aren’t going to get away from your bacon and eggs in the morning."
As Perkins restaurants, the management was locked into set menus that either were not well-suited to local audiences — the biscuits and gravy never did well — or required expensive shipping from south of the border. Perron said now the restaurants’ goals will be to aim local: so far, they’re in the process of finalizing deals with local meat and cheese companies, and have enlisted Niverville’s Negash Coffee — a Black-owned organic coffee roastery — to serve up the joe.
The emphasis on local could help revitalize the restaurants’ patronage: a June survey on restaurants during COVID conducted by Dalhousie University and the Angus Reid Institute found two-thirds of Canadians planned to visit independent restaurants during their first outings, as compared to only 39 per cent who planned to go out to a franchise to dine.
Perron said the restaurants have been operating since June 1, facing the challenges of COVID-19 head on, retaining about 130 local staff and serving a relatively steady stream of customers. So far, revenues are about 70 per cent of normal, he said, but business did dip in August as case numbers of the virus increased in Manitoba.
"Most restaurants don’t do a rebranding midstream, especially during a pandemic," said Perron. "But we’re doing it, and we hope to do well like all other restaurants hope."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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