In 1983, Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels was No. 1 at the box office, The A-Team featuring Mr. T was one of most popular new shows on television and tennis giant Bjorn Borg retired his racquet, after netting his fifth straight Wimbledon championship.
Oh, and Osborne Village dessert palace Baked Expectations doled out its first slice of cake.
"Just the other day somebody asked if I remember Day 1 and I said not only do I remember it, I remember what I was wearing: a red polka-dot top with a bow and black, high-waisted pants, both of which I bought from Eaton’s to match the decor of the restaurant," says Beth Grubert, seated in her cheery, 100-seat eatery at 161 Osborne St. "I was 21 when we opened, which is crazy to think about, considering that’s the same age my daughter Julia is now. I mean seriously, where does the time go?"
While some might think 21 is an absurdly young age to own and operate a restaurant, given the identity of Grubert’s father, the real question might be what took her so long.
'We're definitely not the shiny new thing any longer, but we've always done our best to stay current, and it will be loads of fun looking back' — Beth Grubert
In 1957, Winnipeg lawyer Oscar Grubert opened a drive-in restaurant on Main Street called Champs. The following year, he penned a letter to Harland Sanders, inquiring about franchise opportunities with the American entrepreneur’s Kentucky Fried Chicken operation. A handshake deal months later eventually led to Grubert, who died in 2014, opening more than 20 KFC outlets in Western Canada. That is, when the sometime music promoter — in 1966, he brought the Rolling Stones to town — wasn’t developing his own dine-in concepts, among them, Mother Tucker’s Food Experience, G. Willikers, Butcher Block and Garden Creperie.
"My first job was at Grubee’s on Portage Avenue," Grubert says, referring to her dad’s fast-food chain that, for a spell in the 1970s, gave hamburger heavyweights McDonald’s and A&W a run for their money. "I used to take the bus there from school, dressed in that ‘beautiful’ orange and brown uniform all the workers wore."
Her original intention was to take criminology at the University of Manitoba, with an eye toward law school. She began rethinking that strategy first after spending a summer in Paris, where she studied at Le Cordon Bleu, and later, during a trip to Toronto where she visited Just Desserts, a Yonge Street locale that served precisely what its moniker implied. Figuring a similar model would work back home, albeit with an assortment of sandwiches, pastas and salads added to the mix, she and her father went location-shopping in the fall of 1982. The pair ultimately settled on a closed-down pharmacy directly across the street from the Osborne Village Motor Inn that, at the time, was owned by the elder Grubert.
"I’ll take credit for the menu and business-name, but it was definitely my dad’s call to open here, because he’d always liked the look of the windows," says the mother of two, referring to six rounded, floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that, more often than not, are adorned with wee ones’ hand-rendered drawings bearing captions such as "Best Food Ever!!," "C U in CANDYLAND" and "I can’t decide what too (sic) eat!" (As if more than a dozen varieties of cakes, pies and brownies isn’t enough to hold their attention, Grubert routinely hands out blank sheets of paper and colour markers to kiddies on their way into her establishment.)
"We took possession of the space in December (1982) and after gutting the place, opened on a Friday night in January (1983)," she says, noting due to the fact the holiday season had just ended, the restaurant wasn’t exceedingly busy at first, which was probably a good thing, because it allowed her and her staff an opportunity to get their feet under them.
"But I do recall an evening during our first summer in business when I was pouring cappuccinos and took a second to look up. The place was packed with people, there were all these different conversations going on and I thought to myself, hey, we might just be onto something." (Get this: in the early going, while Grubert was still figuring out demand, she often made middle-of-the-night runs to a People’s Co-op in the North End, to buy cream cheese straight off the production line.)
In February, Grubert was putting the finishing touches on a Schmoo cake, an ooey-gooey delight that’s been available since the get-go — so, too, cherry cheesecake and Tia Maria torte — when one of her servers asked if she could sell a customer an entire chocolate cake. Normally that type of request requires 24-hours notice so the kitchen doesn’t run short of a particular confection. Except the second the staff member added, "...and he’d like us to write ‘Will you marry me?’ across the top," Grubert nodded "You betcha."
"I can’t tell you the number of engagements that have occurred here, through the years," she says, adding on an almost daily basis, somebody tells her Baked was where they and their partner went on their first date. "Sometimes it can be bittersweet, though, like the one couple that used to come in three or four times a week that we only knew by their dessert names. After her husband passed away, the wife continued sending us Christmas cards signed lemon-almond torte and Black Forest cake."
Grubert says it’s equally touching how many adults mention they started coming there when they were toddlers, and now show up with their own youngsters in tow. Also amusing, because so many of those children press their fingertips and noses up against the display cases trying to decide what to order, glass cleaner is almost as important a commodity as eggs and baking soda, she adds.
When it comes to famous faces, sure Grubert and her staff were over the moon when Keanu Reeves habitually popped by in 1995, when he wasn’t treading the boards at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, playing the title role in Hamlet. And yeah, it was an equally big deal when Dennis Quaid chowed down on a burger and fries one night in 2007, when the Texas-born actor was in Winnipeg filming the psychological thriller Horsemen. But the biggest feather in Grubert’s cap was when she was contacted by the editors of Bon Appetit magazine six years ago, to provide the recipe for her lip-smacking, two-tier banana cake with butter frosting.
"The way it was explained to me, somebody wrote the magazine saying they’d been to Winnipeg and had tried our (banana) cake and were looking for the recipe," she says, pointing out most of the recipes employed are variations of hers or her mother Belle’s. "So yeah, when that particular edition came out, it was pretty exciting, for sure."
These days, Grubert is busily brainstorming with an advertising professional, trying to come up with creative ways to mark Baked Expectations’ 35th anniversary. "Where were you in ’83?" will be a central theme of the campaign, she figures. Plans are underway to reintroduce T-shirts staff wore that year, as well as fashion together a soundtrack of 1983’s greatest hits (Might we request Mr. Roboto, Pass the Dutchie and Total Eclipse of the Heart?).
"We’re definitely not the shiny new thing any longer, but we’ve always done our best to stay current, and it will be loads of fun looking back," she says.
Finally, when asked why she has resisted the urge to open additional locations in other parts of the city, she replies while that may happen yet — "My daughter has an amazing business mind, and if she ever comes on board, she’d probably have 20 more by the next year" — she’s always been content being a destination point for sweet teeth from every corner of the city… and beyond. (Just last week somebody from "up north" ordered two birthday cakes, she says, meaning north as in Nunavut, not Seven Oaks.)
"Through the years, the Village has had its up and downs, and it’s probably true it’s going through a bit of a down-cycle right now," she says. "But I have faith it will come back, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve stayed put for 35 years. We hate to see the other closures — the space where Desart used to be is still empty, for example — but it’s my belief there need to be anchors in communities, and that’s what I like to think we are."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.