April 8, 2020

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It wasn't always a deli?

Bernstein's Deli has been an institution so long -- 35 years -- it's surprising to remember it started as a grocery store

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Aaron Bernstein inside Bernstein’s Delicatessen at 1700 Corydon Ave. The family-owned and operated deli was opened as a grocery store in February 1985.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Aaron Bernstein inside Bernstein’s Delicatessen at 1700 Corydon Ave. The family-owned and operated deli was opened as a grocery store in February 1985.

There is a memorable scene in the movie Five Easy Pieces when Jack Nicholson’s character asks for some toast to go along with his omelette. Upon being told the roadside diner he’s at doesn’t serve side orders of toast, he requests a chicken salad sandwich instead, instructing the server to hold the mayo, butter and lettuce. When she asks him in a snarky tone if he’s finished, he replies no; he wants her to hold the chicken, too, preferably "between your knees."

TWO MINUTES FOR TASTING SO GOOD

Three of Aaron Bernstein’s closest friends are Ezra Ginsburg, Drew Mindell and Richard Pollock, co-hosts of the Illegal Curve Hockey Show, which airs Saturday mornings on TSN 1290 Radio.

Three of Aaron Bernstein’s closest friends are Ezra Ginsburg, Drew Mindell and Richard Pollock, co-hosts of the Illegal Curve Hockey Show, which airs Saturday mornings on TSN 1290 Radio.

In 2015, when Bernstein’s Deli signed on as one of the program’s chief advertising sponsors, Ginsburg told his chum it was a shame there wasn’t something on his menu that called attention to their partnership. That all changed in September of that year, when, hanging out in Pollock’s rec room watching sports, the four of them started tossing ideas back and forth, trying to figure out what an Illegal Curve sandwich would look (taste?) like, exactly.

“I was like, OK, it has to have salami but what else?” says Ginsburg, who has fond memories of eating at Bernstein’s Deli as a “poor, destitute” high school student, back when Aaron’s mom would charge him and his buddies half-price, if she bothered to bill them at all. “That’s when Aaron suggested chicken schnitzel and Richard proposed potato salad. That’s not going to work, we told him, so we settled on fried onions and honey mustard — on thick-cut City rye bread — instead.”

The final version has salami, chicken schnitzel, fried onions and honey mustard on the thick-cut City rye.

How far would a person travel for an Illegal Curve sandwich, now a fixture at Bernstein’s during hockey season? Would you believe all the way from The Netherlands? Last year, a regular caller to the Illegal Curve Hockey Show, a 17-year-old who identifies himself as Rowdy the Dutch Jets Fan, announced on-air that he was planning to visit Winnipeg for the first time to see relatives. Also, while he was in town, he would hopefully make it to Bernstein’s, to try an Illegal Curve sammie out for himself.

“I told him he wouldn’t be disappointed, and if it came to pass — which it did — lunch was on me,” Ginsburg says.

That’s a bit what it was like — minus the PG rating, of course — the first time a customer requested a sandwich at Bernstein’s Meats, the predecessor of Bernstein’s Delicatessen, which celebrated its 35th anniversary Feb. 1.

Two years after Marla Bernstein and her husband Tony, now her ex, opened a Jewish-style butcher shop in a converted Safeway outlet at 1700 Corydon Ave., a customer asked Marla for a corned beef on rye with hot mustard. Sorry, she informed him, they didn’t make sandwiches there, they were a grocery store.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Shelves are stocked with grocery specialty items inside Bernstein’s Delicatessen.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Shelves are stocked with grocery specialty items inside Bernstein’s Delicatessen.

To which he shot back, but you have corned beef, bread and mustard, don’t you? Touché.

A few days later she prepared another sandwich for a different person, then another the week after that. At some point, she actually hopped in her car and drove to her home on Brock Street to retrieve a toaster sitting on the kitchen counter, after somebody else said he preferred the bread for his sandwich toasted.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Patrons enjoy lunch at Bernstein’s Delicatessen on Corydon Avenue.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Patrons enjoy lunch at Bernstein’s Delicatessen on Corydon Avenue.

It was never their intent to add a dining area to the mix but after Supervalu, Superstore’s predecessor, opened one of the first big-box stores in the city on nearby Kenaston Boulevard in the late 1980s, the two of them agreed they were probably going to need another reason for people to stop by, Marla says, seated next to her son Aaron at a corner booth in their 2,400-square-foot, family-run grocery store-cum-deli-counter-cum-restaurant.

"My ex-husband and I are both Jewish, we both grew up eating corned beef and chopped liver so we thought why not do what we know best and open an authentic, Jewish delicatessen to complement the retail side of things? It turned out to be a pretty good decision."


In the early 1980s, the Bernsteins operated the more generic-sounding Ye Olde Butcher Shop near the intersection of Logan Avenue and McPhillips Street. Given the couple commuted daily to work from River Heights, it made more sense, Marla says, to shutter that operation and start fresh when vacant space became available closer to home in early 1985.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A fully stocked shelf of freshly made soups.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A fully stocked shelf of freshly made soups.

Aaron, the eldest of three brothers, guesses he was eight or nine years old when he started helping out there on weekends. He was 16 when his parents divorced in 1999 leaving his mom to manage things on her own, and 29 when Shari MacDonald, the deli’s longtime head cook, died of a brain aneurism in 2012.

"My expertise was never the restaurant side of things. I had been leaving that up to Shari for the most part," Marla explains. "So when she passed away suddenly I was in a real panic, to the point that I actually considered selling the place. That’s when Aaron came aboard, first to help me find a new cook, and then, a few months later, to stay on permanently."

Aaron tells the story a bit differently.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The deli counter offers premium cut meats, cheeses and specialty items for all kinds of customers.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The deli counter offers premium cut meats, cheeses and specialty items for all kinds of customers.

"In 2012, I was working as a program manager for an engineering firm but wasn’t particularly in love with my job," says the Concordia University alumnus. "After I quit, I started hanging around here a fair bit more than I had been, when I was working 9-to-5. There was definitely a loyal client base but at the same time, it wasn’t as busy as I felt I could be, or at least as busy as I remembered it being when I was a kid. That’s when a light bulb kind of went off and I decided to try applying some of the things I’d learned as a manager to this line of work."

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Alice Mark has been shopping the shelves of Bernstein’s since it opened 35 years ago.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Alice Mark has been shopping the shelves of Bernstein’s since it opened 35 years ago.

One of the first things Aaron did was address the staffing level, or lack thereof. For the longest time, there was only one server responsible for the entire restaurant. When things got backed up, they would yell over to the grocery store, hoping somebody working behind the meat counter or cash register could pop over and lend them a hand. Except what ultimately occurred, particularly when both sides were equally busy, was that tables would sit dirty because there was nobody to clean them, and meals would take forever to come out of the kitchen because the lone server was being run off their feet.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Longtime friend of the Bernsteins, Carter Chen, enjoys a cup of coffee.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Longtime friend of the Bernsteins, Carter Chen, enjoys a cup of coffee.

"It was a total mess," Aaron says, rolling his eyes. "Some of the workers who’d been here a while weren’t happy when I hired extra staff — some quit outright because they didn’t want to share their tips — but after I explained customers were likely to tip more if we offered better service, and that we’d be able to put more people through the door if tables were bused in a timely manner, they gradually came around to my way of thinking."

Besides improving the day-to-day operation, Marla also credits Aaron, a self-described foodie, for bringing Bernstein’s into the 21st century menu-wise. Sure they still serve classic deli fare such as pickled tongue, potato latkes and gefilte fish, but since joining the fray he has introduced a few trendier choices, among them a bison reuben, a black bean and wild rice burger and chicken and waffles. (OK, because the kitchen doesn’t have a waffle iron, what you actually get is chicken and pancakes, but same idea, right?)

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Steven Bernstein (left) and David Azuelos (right) enjoy lunch.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steven Bernstein (left) and David Azuelos (right) enjoy lunch.

It was also Aaron’s decision to reserve a button on their point-of-sale device solely for a dish called the Robert, named for a retired judge who chows down there, on average, five days a week.

"It’s not something super crazy, just a variation on a breakfast sandwich with fried egg, cheese, bacon, fried mushrooms and onions on a hamburger bun, but because we were constantly adding everything up individually so we could figure out how much to charge him, we programmed one key and slapped his name on it," Aaron says with a laugh.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Aaron Bernstein helps out a customer.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Aaron Bernstein helps out a customer.

Additionally, you may recall past columns mentioning how certain, iconic restaurants around town have been known to FedEx pizzas, burgers, even perogies across the country to ex-pat Winnipeggers? Same thing at Bernstein’s, where at least once a week somebody pops in on their way to the airport to grab a few pints of cabbage borscht or chicken matzo ball soup (a.k.a. Jewish penicillin) to take home in their luggage.

"Or they tell me their plane landed 20 minutes ago and this was the first place they stopped on their way to their hotel or wherever," Marla says. "We’re constantly vacuum-sealing sliced meats for people to bring back to Vancouver or Toronto. We’ve even sent things by Greyhound as far as Thunder Bay, if you can believe it. It’s not cheap but for some people, money’s no object when it comes to a taste of home."

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A hand-drawn sign gives a family feel.</p>

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A hand-drawn sign gives a family feel.

For the past few months, Marla has been largely absent from work as she deals with a medical issue. Knowing Aaron is there running the show has been a godsend, she says.

"Seven years ago, this place was stagnant. Aaron allowed us to move forward and without him, there’s no doubt in my mind it would have disappeared," she says, rubbing her son’s shoulder.

"It’s funny," Aaron chimes in. "When I was 15 or 16, I hated working here because it meant I could never hang out with my buddies on the weekend. Now a lot of them show up for breakfast or lunch with their kids, so it gives us a perfect opportunity to catch up. Truly, it’s such a joy to see all these familiar faces, day in day out."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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