As reported by the Free Press’ Martin Cash in July, three Perkins restaurants have closed in Winnipeg in the last 10 months, including the one formerly at 123 Vermillion Rd., just south of Fermor Avenue.
Perry Verot, owner of the nearby Southdale Village Family Restaurant at 35 Lakewood Blvd., says while he wasn’t particularly disheartened by the news of his competition’s demise — after all, business at his and his wife Kelly’s establishment has picked up approximately 15 per cent since the Southdale Centre Perkins shut its doors last November — he was somewhat surprised.
"Like most people in this line of work, we were so busy doing our own thing we had no idea they were even in trouble," says Verot, 53, seated in his tastefully decorated, 84-seat restaurant, located in a suburban strip mall a few doors down from a Walmart store. "Before getting into this business, my wife and I went to the Perkins on Regent (Avenue) all the time and I just assumed the one over here was really busy, too."
"Loyalty's a big part of it, too. When people visit a particular spot week after week, year after year, they seem genuinely concerned 'their' place is doing OK, and that the staff is well taken care of." — Southdale Village Family Restaurant owner Perry Verot, on how family-owned joints keep plugging along while some national chains suffer
That invites an obvious question: what is it about homestyle, mom-and-pop joints such as the Verots’, which employs 25 people and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, that allows them to keep chugging along, while national — or in the case of Perkins, international — chains sometimes fall by the wayside?
"I believe the ability to offer a more personal touch is one of the things smaller places seem better equipped to do," he says. "When I was in sales I travelled a fair bit and always thought how nice it was when a server at a cute, little restaurant I’d been to a few times remembered how I take my coffee, or what kind of juice I like."
"Loyalty’s a big part of it, too," he continues, waving to a pair of women on their way out the door. "When people visit a particular spot week after week, year after year, they seem genuinely concerned ‘their’ place is doing OK, and that the staff is well taken care of. So many times, customers thank us for still being here when of course, it should be the other way around. We should be the ones thanking them, every chance we get."
The first thing you notice when you stroll into the Southdale Village Family Restaurant — regulars call it simply the "Family Restaurant" — are a series of cut-out, paper stars affixed to the wall, each of them inscribed with the name of a server who’s been working there for 10, 15 or, in the case of Donna Laurent, 23 years.
"One day we’ll have to take a few minutes to update those stars because this is actually my 25th year here," Laurent says, seated at a corner table by the front bay window. "I won’t tell you how old I was when I started, but the reason I applied in the first place was because my sister smashed up my car and I needed to get a part-time job to help pay for the damage she caused. Little did I know I’d never leave."
Laurent, who grew up in the area, says the restaurant was originally called Voula’s, after the Greek lady who ran it. It had three or four tables, tops, and was situated in a central courtyard area across from the entrance to a Zellers outlet.
"Or maybe it was still K-Mart back then, I can’t remember, exactly," she says.
When the strip mall was completely revamped in the late 1980s, Voula and her business partner, a woman named Dina, moved into larger digs facing the parking lot, changing the name to Southdale Village Family Restaurant in the process. They sold the restaurant to another pair of women two years after Laurent began working there. That duo ran things for 12 years, before turning the keys over to Verot.
"I’ve been here so long, I’m now serving people who used to eat here when they were kids, who now show up with children of their own," Laurent says, shaking her head. "We have one group of guys who’ve been coming every week for lunch since we opened, practically. We call them the Romeo Club, mostly because they’re a bunch of old flirts. There used to be eight of ’em but now that they’re in their 80s, that number’s down to four, unfortunately. I’m at the point where if they don’t show up on time, I start to worry."
Like he mentioned earlier, Verot used to be a sales rep. In 2008, one of his regular calls was a drugstore a few doors down from what is now his restaurant. Every now and again, he’d pop in for a bite or cuppa joe. One day, through the grapevine, he heard the restaurant’s owners were thinking of retiring.
Aside from a part-time job flipping steaks at Ponderosa when he was in high school, Verot had zero experience in the restaurant biz. That didn’t stop him from sitting down with Kelly one evening and telling her after working in sales for more than 20 years, he was seriously contemplating a career change. When he got to the part about purchasing a restaurant, she told him she trusted his instincts. If he was happy with his decision, she was too, she said
"About the only person who thought I was nuts was my accountant, Leonard," says the father of two. "I remember him taking off his glasses, staring at me over a pile of papers on his desk and saying, ‘Perry, you have a cushy job that pays well. What the hell do you want to own a restaurant for?’ I’ll admit there were a few days and nights that first year when I wondered the exact same thing but 11 years later, I can honestly say it was the best decision I ever made."
"I've been here so long, I'm now serving people who used to eat here when they were kids, who now show up with children of their own." — Donna Laurent, who has been serving customers for 25 years and is on her third set of bosses
When he isn’t helping fetch orders or, as he was doing when we arrived, vacuuming the carpet, Verot can usually be found at the front of the house, greeting and seating customers. If you go there often enough and he spots you parking your car, there’s an even chance your table will be waiting for you when you step through the door, precisely how you like it.
For instance, if it’s Thursday, that means the "burger boys" will be in for lunch, he says. They almost always pause outside for a cigarette while they wait for their entire party to arrive, so by the time they’re ready to sit down — "they always sit at Table 18…always," Verot says, motioning over his left shoulder — their orders are already cooking on the grill.
Then there’s Al, who stops by for breakfast bright and early every Wednesday morning. He likes his table set just so: a shaker of seasoning salt to his right, a bottle each of Frank’s Red Hot sauce and Tabasco sauce to his left and a pitcher of Diet Coke, plunked in the center.
"We also have Phyllis," he continues. "She just turned 90 and drinks a lot of tea. A lot. It used to be when we were busy, it was almost impossible to keep her topped up. So what I thought was, why not buy a big, personalized teapot just for her, which we can get ready the second she steps in? She absolutely loves it. She tells everybody seated near her it makes her feel like a queen."
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As for noteworthy-types who’ve eaten there: Verot namedrops the province’s last two premiers, Greg Selinger and Brian Pallister (not at the same table), Liberal MP for St. Boniface-St. Vital Dan Vandal and — perhaps even more impressive — former American Wrestling Association grappler Fred "Puppy Dog" Peloquin. (To be a rasslin’ champ, you have to eat like a rasslin’ champ: Peloquin, at one time the West Four Wrestling Alliance’s Canadian heavyweight title-holder, prefers his eggs sunny side-up, Verot says.)
Also, you know how you learn from a young age that it’s important to listen to your coach?
When Winnipeg Jets bench boss Paul Maurice went for dinner at the Southdale Village Family Restaurant with his wife Michelle a while back, Verot informed him his dessert was on the house.
"He told me straight up he doesn’t accept freebies, that it’s an honour and a privilege to coach the Jets, and that if I didn’t charge him (for dessert) he’d never come back. Let’s just say he’s a man of his word, that’s for sure," Verot says with a grin.
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
One of the most popular dishes at the Southdale Village Family Restaurant is beef liver, served with gravy and a choice of bacon or onions. Just don’t ask owner Perry Verot how it tastes.
“Personally, I’m not a big fan of liver so I happily take customers’ word for it when they tell me it’s one of the best in the city,” he says.
Other top sellers include a hot turkey sandwich with all the fixings (the cooks oven-roast four to six large turkeys every week), reubens (the kitchen goes through 25 kilograms of corned beef, Monday to Friday) and, last but not least, breakfast. Verot has a standing order for 250 kilograms of spuds to be delivered every week, as well as 250 dozen eggs.
“Another thing we used to serve was spaghetti and fried chicken,” he says. “We hadn’t offered it in a while and last year one of the servers asked why, since customers still request it. Good question, I told her. Now it’s back on the menu every Wednesday night.”