Better than baba’s?
Sevala's Ukrainian Deli in Transcona dishes up perogies, holopchi and varenyky that would make a grandma proud
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/01/2021 (589 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The same way people were discouraged from gathering in December to celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, those who follow the Julian calendar are being instructed not to hook up with friends and family later this week to observe Svyatvecher, more commonly known as Ukrainian Christmas.
Still, if you are planning to sit down with your bubble-mates for a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal this Wednesday and are in a pinch for perogies, Sevala’s Ukrainian Deli at 126 Victoria Ave. W. has that covered.
“Ukrainian Christmas isn’t as big in Winnipeg as it once was, which is kind of sad, but what we’ve been trying to do the last several years is take some of the less commonly seen Ukrainian dishes and make them available for customers who still celebrate (Ukrainian Christmas),” says Del Demchuk, whose late mother, Sylvia Beck, founded Sevala’s — which, despite the deli part of its tag, has always been takeout only — out of a two-car garage in Transcona 35 years ago.
Nalysnyky, a cottage cheese crepe, is one of the things they regularly whip up this time of year, as are sauerkraut soup and beet leaf buns, Demchuk says, seated next to his wife Bernadette (Bernie) and their daughters Amy and Samantha, all of whom are heavily involved in the bustling shop’s day-to-day affairs.
“The old-timers who come here recognize those types of things,” he continues, standing near a framed photograph of his mother, who died in January 2018 at the age of 87. “But every so often some of the younger people will remark, ‘Oh yeah, my baba used to make that for me,’ when they spot something like kutia (a wheatberry pudding) in the display case.”
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Sylvia Beck, the youngest of 10 siblings, grew up on a family farm near Pelly, Sask., — “big-time Ukrainian country,” Del points out — about 200 kilometres northwest of Dauphin. Amy chuckles, recalling a childhood story her grandmother told her one morning when they were both up to their elbows in dough.
“Baba said if the neighbours ever dropped by unexpectedly while she and her mother were in the kitchen making perogies, her mother would immediately cover everything up with a long sheet because she was ashamed to be seen preparing what she referred to as ‘poor man’s food,’ just flour and potatoes,” Amy says.
Skip ahead 50-some years. In the early 1980s, not long after Sylvia and her husband Paul, parents of five, moved to Winnipeg from Swan River, she was forced to leave her job as a clerical worker with Toronto-Dominion Bank, owing to health problems associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Except because she was a “farm girl at heart,” she couldn’t simply put her feet up and relax, her son says.
“Not a chance,” Del goes on. “Back then, one of my sisters was working for Pacific Western Airlines and on a weekly basis, Mom would make perogies for her to take for lunch. It wasn’t long before my sister’s co-workers started bugging her, saying, ‘Hey, can we get some of those, too?’”
Never one to say no, Sylvia began preparing perogies and cabbage rolls, another oft-requested item, by the dozens in the kitchen of her Day Street home. Word spread, orders poured in and everything stayed hunky-dory until the day a provincial health inspector rang the doorbell, asking to have a look around.
“I guess somebody ratted her out, but as it turned out, this inspector guy couldn’t have been more fantastic,” Del says. “My mother was in tears but he said, ‘You know, you do have a garage out back you could convert into a commercial kitchen if you are so willing.’ She shook his hand, saying that’s exactly what she would do, and spent the next several months getting everything up to code. At that point, there was no stopping her.”
Things went along swimmingly for a couple of years — Del says his mother used to get a kick out of pulling a thick wad of bills from her apron pocket at dinner time, remarking, “Look how much I pulled in this week!” — but in 1988, Sylvia decided she wanted to expand by adding a sit-down restaurant to the mix. Del, already working in the food industry at the time, asked his mom who exactly was going to run the 52-seat Rothesay Street eatery. Her response: “Why you are, of course.”
“As it turned out, my sisters Janet, who’s dearly departed, and Kathy, who would have been attending university around that time, were the ones responsible for getting things going,” he says of the breakfast, lunch and dinner nook dubbed Sevala’s, Ukrainian for Sylvia. “In the beginning, I helped out on weekends only, but as things got busier and busier and they needed a hand during the week as well, Bernie and I decided it would probably be best if I quit my full-time job and concentrated solely on the restaurant, so that I’d have some time for our own kids.”
A second eatery, this one on Provencher Boulevard, followed a few years later. By then, Sevala’s was also supplying close to 60 independent grocery stores with precooked borscht, perogies and cabbage rolls, the lot of which was still being prepared in Sylvia’s garage. Things continued that way until 1994, when one of Del’s sisters spotted a “for rent” sign in the window of a former hairdressing shop at 126 Victoria Ave. W. By the end of that year, Sevala’s present location was serving as an 1,800-square-foot commissary for both restaurants, as well as housing a wholesale and catering division.
“To make a long story short, it reached a point where something had to give because we were simply too busy,” Del says, noting at one point they were turning out a million perogies and cabbage rolls each on an annual basis. First, they bid adieu to the restaurant on Rothesay. Later, when their lease came up in St. Boniface, they informed the landlord they weren’t planning to renew. Finally, they scaled back the amount of food they were supplying to grocery stores, eventually reaching a point where if a person had a hankering for their holopchi or varenyky, they had no choice but to make the trek to Transcona.
About that: Samantha, who manages the till, says it’s not uncommon to field questions from people curious about how to ship Sevala’s output to Mexico, California… even Europe.
“We have one regular who stops by on her way to the airport whenever she goes to visit relatives in Germany,” Samantha says. “She asks us to package her order a certain way for the flight so that everything stays fresh for however long it takes her to arrive.”
Like most businesses, Sevala’s was forced to pivot in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. The store closed completely from mid-March until the first week of May, a time-frame the Demchuks used to reconfigure the kitchen so staff would be able to physically distance when they returned to work. Sevala’s is currently open Tuesday to Saturday but the pandemic has had a lasting effect on the way longtime regulars have been able to pre-order for special occasions such as holidays and birthdays.
“In the past we had a lot of customers who would get in touch months in advance, but we weren’t able to accept those types of orders (last year) because we could never guarantee we’d have enough staff to get everything done, in the event somebody got sick,” Bernie says. “I remember a person calling a couple of days after Christmas one time, wanting to put in an order for Christmas Eve. I was like, ‘Don’t you mean New Year’s Eve? Christmas Eve was a few days ago.’ She said, no, I mean next Christmas Eve.” (Even better; last February, when consumers started stockpiling grocery items such as bleach and detergent, Bernie, who occasionally fills in as the store’s costumed mascot, Ivanna Perogy, fielded several large orders for people who commented others could have all the toilet paper they wanted, they were more concerned about making sure their freezer was plumb full of perogies.)
On the east side of the building is a wall-sized mural of a woman sporting a traditional Ukrainian headdress fashioned out of flowers and leaves. The store’s name and phone number are also prominently displayed along with the tagline, “Just like Baba makes.” Isn’t that a bold claim to make, particularly in a province where, according to the latest Statistics Canada numbers, a full 15 per cent of the population is of Ukrainian heritage?
“I’m the first to agree that everybody’s grandma’s perogies are the best and that everybody’s grandma’s borscht is the best, but time and time again, we’ve been told ours are a pretty close second,” Del says, giving his mother full credit for creating a biz that has provided him and his family with a “pretty nice lifestyle.”
“The thing is, you would never have heard my mom say her food was as good as anybody else’s, though. Rather, if somebody told her that her cabbage rolls or whatever were almost as good as their baba’s, she’d always say that’s the way it was supposed to be — how being almost as good was the best compliment she could ever receive.”
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.