It’s like they say in the title theme to a popular 1980s sitcom: you want to be where everybody knows your name; or, at the very least, your first name.
For more than 30 years, a group of men from all walks of life, as many as 15, never fewer than three, hooked up for breakfast every Thursday morning at Big Rick’s Hot Rod Diner at 379 Henderson Hwy. Their streak of 1,500-plus weeks in a row, less occasions when Thursday fell on a major holiday, came to a crashing halt in March of last year, when the auto-centric eatery was forced to close due to COVID-19.
So, did the group pick up right where it left off after government restrictions were relaxed in early August, and Manitobans were once again allowed to break bread with those outside their immediate household? Yes and no, says owner Rick Wareham, sporting his usual work attire: jeans, sneakers and a well-worn, motorcycle-brand T-shirt.
"They started drifting back in three or four at a time, but after noticing some of the usual crew was missing, they talked about reaching out to them, to make sure everybody was doing OK," Wareham says, seated at a table in the homey diner’s "new" section, a white-and-black tiled space formerly occupied by an intact Volkswagen he had removed to make it easier for guests to spread out while chowing down on a Cadillac burger, BLT or Baba’s Ukrainian-style brekkie, the latter consisting of two eggs, two perogies, grilled garlic sausage, sour cream and toast, hold the holopchi.
"That’s when it dawned on them that they didn’t know everybody’s last name to get in touch, despite the fact they’d been eating together all this time. Isn’t that a hoot?"
Wareham, 64, was born and raised in Neepawa. As evidenced by his livelihood’s name and accompanying motif — heck, it’s difficult to determine what shade of paint the walls are, given the floor-to-ceiling array of licence plates, hubcaps, traffic signs and gas station memorabilia — cars are far and away his first love. As a kid, he and his father would attend motor races in Gladstone, Rapid City and Brandon almost every weekend during the spring and summer. That is, when they weren’t up to their elbows in grease, from working on one roadster or another in the driveway.
"I raced a bit myself as I got older but there weren’t too many big wins to brag about," says Wareham, who has fond memories of his mother, who sometimes competed in a ladies’ "powder-puff" division, waiting for him at the finish line with a snack and cold beverage.
He moved to "the big city" following high school to study computer science at the University of Manitoba, back when computers "took up an entire room," he says with a chuckle. University didn’t turn out to be his cup of tea, so he switched gears at age 19 by enrolling in an autobody course at Red River College.
He landed a job immediately after netting his diploma. A disagreement with his boss — he can’t recall what it was about, it was probably so trivial — led to him opening Wareham Autobody at the tender age of 21. He laughs again when asked how he came up with the financing to establish his own business, which was situated at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Ferry Road.
"You think you have enough (money) until it’s all gone in the first three days. Then you roll up your sleeves and start making some more. It was as simple as that."
Allowing he is horrible with dates, Wareham guesses he ran that particular shop for "six or eight" years before moving to Stonewall with his wife, Debbie. He opened a similar operation there, one that would probably still be around today if it hadn’t been for an accountant-friend of his who, in the spring of 1986, mentioned there was a Dutch Maid ice cream parlour on Henderson Highway for sale and also, what a cash cow it would be for whoever scooped it up first.
Wareham knew nothing about frozen treats other than "how to eat them." That didn’t stop him from heeding his bookkeeper’s advice. The next thing he knew, he was splitting his days between doling out cones and shakes in Elmwood, and fixing dents on cars and trucks in Stonewall. (Yes, he subscribed to Dutch Maid’s time-honoured tradition of granting visitors a free sundae when they showed up on their birthday.)
Things went along swimmingly until about 1988, at which point Dutch Maid, which had three locations in the city at one point, ceased producing its own ice cream. Uninterested in serving a generic brand that tasted like "everybody else’s," Wareham traded in his commercial freezer for a grill and deep fryer, and reinvented the space as a breakfast-and-lunch nook he dubbed Big Rick’s Hot Rod Diner. Not that he’s noticeably tall and/or portly; it was more that the moniker Rick’s Diner was already taken at the time, he explains.
Initially, Wareham worked the front of the house, fielding orders and bussing tables, while hired help readied the meals. He continued to divide his time between the diner and the autobody shop but as sales at Big Rick’s steadily increased — before long, he pretty much knew what time of day it was based on who was coming through the front door — he made the decision to shutter the car side of things, and devote his full attention to the restaurant.
"I’m a self-taught cook, that’s true, but it’s pretty basic stuff around here, mostly bacon and eggs for breakfast, and burgers and sandwiches for lunch," says Wareham, who for the last several years has gone it alone, sans staff. Here’s the nice thing, though; whenever he gets "absolutely slammed," like he was just last week when orders took 30 to 45 minutes to come out of the kitchen, there’s almost always somebody around ready, willing and able to pitch in. (Good to know: if you think half an hour is too long to wait for a mushroom omelette, there’s a weathered sign near the cash register reading, "Complaints, press red button," with said tab resting inside a double-spring, steel bear trap.)
"It really is something to see," he goes on, shaking his head. "They’ll walk around the room with a coffee pot, filling other people’s cups, sometimes going as far as helping out with the dishes and answering the phone." That degree of generosity is probably the reason a number of dishes on the menu are named for familiar faces. The Rita, for example, is a breakfast sandwich that comes with ham, egg, cheese, onions and mayo on a toasted sesame bun, while the George consists of three eggs, any style, paired with eight slices, about half a pound, of bacon (defibrillator extra).
The close association Wareham has forged with his clientele, many of whom he considers more friends than paying customers, has proven to be a godsend twice in the last 13 years. The first time occurred when his wife Debbie died in a 2008 fire that broke out in their home in Stonewall, after she re-entered the house while it was ablaze, in an effort to save their three dogs. Within days of the tragedy, scores of people, some of whom he only knew by what they took in their tea, reached out, asking what they could do to help.
He received an equal outpouring of affection three years later, during a battle with cancer. Quite often he would arrive for work, not always in the best of shape. Customers informed him they would happily drive him to the hospital for treatment at the end of his shift, at which point they patiently waited in the parking lot until he was done, to ensure he got home safe and sound.
Wareham, who remarried last summer, briefly considered hanging up his apron for good in the spring, when COVID forced him to close the diner for the third time in 18 months. What he quickly realized, however, is just how much he would miss the joint; not just the auto-related artifacts people continue to hand over to add to the decor, or how much he enjoys it when vehicles get swapped over a plate of pancakes ("Somebody comes in the door yelling, ‘Who has a truck for sale?’ and three hands go up.").
Mostly he’d pine over the never-ending pile of bunk emanating from a corner of the room affectionately known as "Bulls--t Alley," where men, many of whom are now pushing 70 or 80, have congregated for a shade over three decades.
"We had to shut that part of things down completely when people weren’t allowed to sit together so it’s been especially great now that that’s no longer the case, which lets them get back to doing what they do best: solving the world’s problems, one at a time," he says with a wink.
One thing that has changed as a direct result of COVID is the hours. Big Rick’s Hot Rod Diner used to be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week, but that’s been scaled back to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday through Sunday — his retirement schedule, Wareham calls it.
"I threaten to lock the doors for good all the time but the regs say that’s not my decision to make, it’s theirs," he says, polishing off a last drop of coffee. "I tell them yeah, but you’re not the ones paying the bills. To which they fire back, oh yes, they are: five or 10 bucks at a time."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.