Hermanos Restaurant and Wine Bar, an east Exchange landmark, is the latest casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown but some believe the city had a hand in its demise.
Noel Bernier, the restaurateur who at one time had a hand in a half dozen standalone Winnipeg restaurants — he also briefly owned the Salisbury house chain — has decided not to reopen Hermanos just as provincial regulations are about to allow restaurants to open at 50 per cent capacity.
The 150-seat restaurant was only doing about five per cent of its normal revenue over the past two months with takeout and delivery, it was already badly on its heels after a devastating 2018 construction season that saw Bannatyne Avenue ripped up, eventually eliminating the street parking that Hermanos relied on.
But the loss of theatre and entertainment crowds – which made up about 80 per cent of the restaurant’s business – was the final dagger.
"If there’s no MTC, no Concert Hall, no concerts at the arena or the Burton Cummings theatre, there is no Hermanos," said Bernier.
Bernier said he was not bitter and expressed his appreciation for all the support he’s received from the city during his 12-year run as one of the busiest restaurateurs in the city, but the combination of a dramatic reduction in business the previous two years and the current shutdown made the business untenable.
"We entered into this COVID situation pretty beaten up to begin with," Bernier said.
"We were put through a situation that just about destroyed me" he said, referring to the construction disruption that contributed to a 90 per cent decline in business some months.
"It’s something you don’t whine about (as a restaurant owner) because it scares the customers away," he said. "But we had two years of a hard drill about how to deal with something like this (the COVID crisis). But it does not make it any easier."
Bernier also was adamant his closure had nothing to do with any drama or dispute with his landlord.
"They have been nothing but supportive,’ he said.
“We were put through a situation that just about destroyed me.” – Noel Bernier, referring to the construction disruption that contributed to a 90 per cent decline in business some months
The landlord, Sandy Shindleman, said, "We are always easy to deal with. All we can do is not charge rent. We can’t pay someone to be our tenant."
Shindleman was very critical of the treatment Hermanos was subjected to because of the city’s road construction projects.
"The city takes away parking, closes the road for two years so people can’t get to his business…" Shindleman said. "There is a guy who is trying hard, very entrepreneurial, and the city snuffed him out."
Shindleman fears there will be little interest in the space for a full-service restaurant in that location with no parking.
"This wasn’t COVID," Shindleman said in reference to the cause of Hermanos closure. "It was them (the city administration). He was promoting, he was doing everything he could. COVID… that was just the timing of an entrepreneur finally putting his hands up and saying he can’t do it."
The damage to Hermanos’ business precipitated Bernier and his partners getting out of other of his restaurant holdings in order to try to salvage the eatery.
He sold Salisbury House back to Earl Barish and partners after having acquired it less than two years earlier. Bernier also no longer has any management interest in other restaurants he once had significant stakes in, including Carnaval Brazilian BBQ, Corrientes Argentine Pizzeria and Prairie 360.
But Bernier is not leaving the east Exchange. Through some connections he had in a small U.S. commodities business that was also shut down because of the coronavirus, Bernier and his partners, Najara Barros and Josh Giesbrecht, have recently established a personal protection equipment logistics company called Exchange PPE.
He has already secured office space on McDermot Avenue and is rapidly engaged in the frantic market of procuring and distributing PPE.
Bernier said Exchange PPE is not set up to supply the public health system – although he said he would enter into contracts if and when that is possible.
Instead, it will focus on meeting the mask and PPE needs of the business community as well as meeting the PPE needs of Indigenous communities.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Friday, May 22, 2020 at 8:04 PM CDT: Updates story.
10:31 PM: Fixes typo
May 23, 2020 at 9:35 AM: Fixes headline.