The City of Winnipeg hopes the fourth time’s the charm as it searches for a business that might be able to make a lasting profit at the Esplanade Riel restaurant space.
The city is seeking bids for the next lease of the site, which is on the Provencher Boulevard footbridge overlooking the Red River, where three restaurants have shut down since it first opened. All three have publicly said the site had high operating costs and a limited sales season.
While the 4,000-square-foot space is designed for a restaurant, a city request for lease proposals notes the government will consider offers for "any potential use," seasonal or year-round.
A co-owner of Salisbury House, which operated the first restaurant on the bridge from 2005 to the end of 2012, said he’s convinced a restaurant won’t turn a profit at the site, unless the city subsidizes it.
"We attempted everything possible to make that location work. It’s a beautiful location, there’s no question about it. And once you’re inside, it provides a great dining experience and view," said Earl Barish. "The unfortunate part is that a restaurant has some key needs in order to be successful. One of the key needs is parking and there is none."
Barish said the walk-up location of the restaurant made it a challenge to attract diners during all but the most ideal summer weather conditions.
"It’s the kind of restaurant you can maybe get... five months of usage from, if you’re lucky," he said.
It was a relief when the city chose not to renew his lease, since the site is quite expensive to operate, with extra ventilation and heating costs linked to its unique location, said Barish.
"The costs are tremendously high for the opportunity for very low (sales) volume. It doesn’t work," he said. "Under my watch, we lost several tens of thousands of dollars every year. I maintained doing that because, as a very devout Winnipegger, I wanted to have that location available. When you could use it, it’s a wonderful location and it’s a highlight of our city."
After the Sals left, French restaurant Chez Sophie sur le pont occupied the space from 2013 to early 2015. In a Facebook post to explain their restaurant’s sudden closure, Chez Sophie owners Sophie and Stephane Wild said the seasonal income from the location was not enough to compensate for "the extraordinary expenditure relating to a restaurant on that bridge."
"The biggest challenge is the operating costs of the building because it’s so specialized and it didn’t make any sense in the winter time. That’s what it boils down to." ‐ Doug Stephen, president of WOW Hospitality Concepts.
"We have dedicated (our) bodies and souls in this restaurant for several months, trying to find solutions to our precarious situation, even up to putting our health and our personal finance at risk," stated the post.
The restaurant Mon Ami Louis was the most recent occupant of the site, from 2015 to June 2020.
While that closure occurred during the pandemic, it can be blamed on the location, said Doug Stephen, president of WOW Hospitality Concepts.
"The biggest challenge is the operating costs of the building because it’s so specialized and it didn’t make any sense in the winter time. That’s what it boils down to," said Stephen.
Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) said she believes the city should be flexible with the terms of the next lease to help ensure a business can be viable.
"I think the way the (request for proposals) is worded… lends itself to entrepreneurs putting in the lease requirements that they need to make a go of it," said Rollins.
The RFP notes bidders are expected to state if they expect to cover property taxes and operating costs of the building or request support from the city. It notes property taxes will cost about $15,000 per year, while annual operating costs include, but are not limited to, $38,500 for electrical, $2,500 for water and $10,000 for repairs and maintenance.
Interested companies are expected to propose a price for the lease itself.
Despite its financial challenges, Rollins said the site is a highlight of her ward that has the potential to become a "vibrant and dynamic pedestrian" destination, whether it offers a souvenir shop, restaurant or other business.
"The intention is to create something that promotes Winnipeg, promotes this site of the bridge… It’s an inspirational space," she said.
City spokesman Kalen Qually said municipal staff recognize there are "business model challenges" with operating a seasonal restaurant on the bridge.
"The parameters of the RFP have been expanded to encourage submissions for any type of tenancy, not just restaurants. The lease terms and business plan will be the keys to success for any proponent," said Qually, in an email.
The deadline for bids is April 16.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.