In mid-December a person who hadn’t been to Daly Burgers in ages popped by for a bite.
Seconds after Gus Vailas stepped out of the kitchen to greet him, the customer responded with, "Oh, I’d heard the place had changed hands. You must be the new owner."
Vailas smiled, rubbed his palms on his apron and corrected the fellow, explaining he wasn’t so much the restaurant’s new owner as its previous owner, back following an extended absence.
"There have been a few customers from the old days who’ve come in, recognized me and reached over the counter to give me a big hug," says Vailas, who left Daly Burgers in 2006 after a two-and-a-half-year run, only to return to his Daly routine July 1, 2017, this time with his son Tony Vailas in tow.
"But for those people who don’t know me and come in wondering if their food is going to taste the same as the last time they were here, I reassure them, saying, ‘Trust me, I’ve been doing this a long time. Your meal’s not only going to be OK, it’s going to be better than it ever was.’"
2018 marks a pair of milestones on the local burger front. One, it’s been 20 years since John Saites purchased a mothballed pharmacy at 619 Corydon Ave. and reopened it as Daly Burgers, named for the neighbouring thoroughfare (that would be Daly, not Burgers). And two, it’s been 40 years since Vailas, the ex-proprietor of a number of successful, Winnipeg burger joints, moved to Canada from his native Greece.
'Tony and I want to rebuild this place back to life, back to what it once was. It's going to take lots of hard work, for sure… but in the end, we want to keep the pride of Daly Burgers going' — Gus Vailas
I remember my first winter here, being stuck in my car in a snowbank on Sargent Avenue at 30-below, thinking, ‘What people say is true. You can actually die, from the cold,’" Vailas says with a chuckle.
Vailas, 65, was born in a town situated on Santorini, an island in the Aegean Sea. After an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale destroyed more than 500 homes there in July 1956, Vailas’s family moved to the Greek mainland, settling in Athens. Growing up, he had two main interests: kicking a soccer ball and fiddling around with machinery. He had his heart set on a professional soccer career, he says, but a serious knee injury in his early 20s derailed that dream. Resorting to Plan B, he relocated to Winnipeg, where an uncle of his had already put down roots. Within a few days, he caught on at Standard Aero as an airline mechanic, his schooled profession.
Tony gives his dad a poke in the ribs and says, "Tell him the truth," when a reporter posits the elder Vailas must have known his way around a kitchen, given his decision in 1987 to take a leave from his chosen career, to purchase an existing Junior’s restaurant on Henderson Highway.
"I had hardly ever cooked. In fact, I couldn’t even make eggs at the time," Vailas says, adding he also didn’t have a clue what a fatboy was, until he went to Junior’s for lunch every day for two weeks, while he was deciding whether to buy the business or not. "The thing with me, I’m very passionate about whatever it is I take on in life, and I’m a fast learner. Plus, my business partner at the time was a cook, so that made me feel safe, if that’s the right word."
Vailas remained at Junior’s for close to three years. After selling the biz in 1989, he moved back to Greece with his wife, Karen, and their three young children, a scenario that would repeat itself a number of times, through the years.
"I’ve probably moved back and forth between here and Athens 10 or 11 times," says the grandfather of four. "Whenever October rolls around, and the weather starts to change, I always get the itch to leave. But every time I’m there, there are things that bug me, too, so I always end up coming back."
Vailas returned to the restaurant biz in 1996. By then, he was back working at Standard Aero — a job he holds to this day (well, at least until the end of February, when he will officially retire) — but because he missed the hustle and bustle of dealing with lunch and dinner crowds, he bought the Burger Place, a cosy, 12-seat nook at 1909 Portage Ave. He stayed there until 1998, when he sold it to the Kostis family, who continue to run it.
After another three-year sojourn in Greece, he contacted Saites, who had just put Daly Burgers up for sale.
"I don’t want to say I get burnt out," he says, trying to explain why he let go of Daly Burgers a scant two years later in 2006, to return to Greece yet again. "But I guess the truth is I go into these things with so much enthusiasm and energy that I end up exhausting myself."
Vailas was fairly certain his days manning a grill were over when he drove past the Park Tower restaurant at 2015 Portage Ave. in 2012, and spotted a "for rent" sign in the front window. That night, he called his son Tony, who, after graduating from Red River College’s hotel and restaurant management program, had gone to work for the Hilton Hotel organization as a food and beverage manager. Vailas wanted to know if his son was interested in going into business together.
Gus and Tony’s at the Park opened to rave reviews in January 2013. The fare — a mix of burgers and sandwiches interspersed with Greek favourites such as souvlaki and gyros — drew standing-room-only crowds, an achievement not lost on a set of investors who approached the father-and-son-team in the summer of 2014, with an offer they couldn’t refuse.
"I refer to us selling Gus and Tony’s after only 18 months as an unanticipated, flip-of-a-business," says Tony. "Because it was my first time (as an owner), my dad even said, ‘Tony, are you sure you want to sell?’ He said maybe I could get a partner of my own, and keep the place, but I said, ‘Dad, if you’re not here, I don’t want to be here, either.’"
When Vailas sold Daly Burgers to outside interests in 2006, he divested himself of the business end of things, but retained ownership of the 1,800-square-foot building. Through the years, he was content being a landlord, but that mindset began to change, not long after the new owners opened a second location on Pembina Highway, only to close its doors a short while later.
"I saw the restaurant was going downhill, and it was hurting me, because I was very proud of this place," Vailas says, taking a sip of his coffee. "They paid the rent, so I had nothing to complain about, but one time I was in here — there was food and wrappers on the tables, customers were yelling and swearing at each other — and I was like, ‘What the hell? Doesn’t anybody care?’"
"I had a bit of the same experience," says Tony, who, after leaving Gus and Tony’s, switched gears completely, going to work as a mortgage broker with Castle Mortgage. "On my way home, I’d pass Daly Burgers, see the faded sign and stuff and just kind of shake my head. It had been such a staple on Corydon for so long I thought, ‘You know, there’s an opportunity there for somebody.’"
The father-and-son team began tossing around the idea of reacquiring Daly Burgers in late 2016. A deal was eventually struck in March 2017 and a few months later, the evening before Canada Day, they replaced the dated, exterior sign with a blue-and-white one ("the colours of the flag of Greece," the elder Vailas points out proudly), and erected a new menu board, directly behind the front counter.
"We wanted to do a seamless takeover; no closure, nothing to announce the restaurant was under new (old?) management," says Tony. "Literally overnight we switched out cash registers and debit terminals and the next morning, were open for business, again."
To date, people have been finding out the Vailases are back largely through word-of-mouth, or via the restaurant’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/dalycorydon). Talk about good news travelling fast: during the summer months, people from as far away as British Columbia and Alberta dropped by to pick up containers of Gus’s "world-famous" chili — prepared with a recipe he perfected during his days at Junior’s — to take home with them.
"It’s funny," his son says. "Quite often, we get calls from guys who are home watching hockey or football, who want to know if they can come by just to grab some chili, to throw over top of whatever it is they’re eating at home, that night."
Also, ever since the pair expanded Daly Burgers’ menu to include much of what they were serving at Gus and Tony’s, they’ve been seeing familiar faces from their time there, people who are trekking across town for their lentil soup or Greek salad fix. (Vailas laughs when he recalls the night years ago when he was in his kitchen at home, and finally nailed his lemon-and-oregano-based chicken marinade, after months of trying. "I woke up my wife and said ‘Please taste this.’ She said, ‘Are you crazy, it’s midnight’ and went back to sleep.")
"People say to me all the time, ‘What the hell, Gus? Why, at your age, are you getting up every day at 5 a.m. to chop lettuce and shape hamburger patties?’" says Vailas, who also devotes two nights a week to Hellas S.C., the senior men’s soccer team he coached to a national title in 2009. "What I tell them is this: Tony and I want to rebuild this place back to life, back to what it once was. It’s going to take lots of hard work, for sure — it’s already taken lots of money — but in the end, we want to keep the pride of Daly Burgers going."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.