Arts & Life
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In February, Nick’s on Broadway was named as a finalist for a James Beard restaurant of the year award, long considered the Oscars of the culinary world.
The next day, Trevor Graumann, who handles social media for Nick’s on Broadway, a gourmet soup-and-sandwich nook at 287 Broadway run by his younger brother Nick, shared the good news on Instagram and Facebook. Here’s the catch: the Nick’s on Broadway that was up for the honour is actually located in Providence, R.I., not downtown Winnipeg.
"After finding out about it my brother decided to have a bit of fun and sure enough we were tagged in a few posts by people congratulating us on ‘our’ nomination," says Nick Graumann, whose namesake eatery, currently open for pickup and delivery only, celebrated its fifth anniversary in January "before all the COVID craziness hit."
If two spots named Nick’s on Broadway isn’t confusing enough, Graumann contends things were even more mixed up a few years ago when there was a third like-named resto, that one in the Big Apple.
One morning he answered his phone only to be greeted by a gruff voice at the other end inquiring why the front door was locked. What was the person talking about, Graumann openly wondered. He could see his entranceway from where he was standing and customers were coming through at that very moment.
After a bit more back and forth Graumann, still perplexed, suddenly blurted out, "Hey, wait a minute. You don’t happen to be standing outside the Nick’s in New York City, do you?"
To which the caller responded, "Of course I am. Why do you ask?"
Graumann, 31, has always been comfortable around pots and pans. One of four siblings including an identical twin brother who’s "taller, smarter and better-looking," he grew up assisting his grandmothers, one Ukrainian and the other German, in the kitchen on a routine basis.
Not that he had much choice.
"It wasn’t really a case of did I want to help make dumplings. It was more like this is what we’re making today so wash your hands and pull up a chair," he says, seated next to his parents, Rick and Diane, both of whom are involved in Nick’s day-to-day operation.
Diane, responsible for desserts such as brownies and vegan cookies, the latter an Instagram star all on their own, playfully pokes her son in the ribs, imploring him to tell the story of his first go-round as a business tycoon while attending La Barriere Crossings School in St. Norbert.
He obliges her, explaining in Grade 6 he came up with a cavity-inducing concoction he referred to as hyper tubes, a mixture of dry Kool-Aid crystals and sugar encased in a long, paper straw closed at one end.
Come recess he would commission a few classmates to take orders from other students, which he would fill the next day for a nominal charge. He was highly organized, had a ledger "and everything," but the school’s principal wasn’t impressed, apparently.
"He called my husband and me and asked if we knew what our son was up to, and that he wanted it stopped immediately," Diane says with a chuckle. "I told him I didn’t think he understood what a good job Nick was doing."
Graumann took a year off after completing Grade 12, accepting a job as a cook at English-flavoured pub Elephant & Castle on St. Mary Avenue. That is, when he wasn’t preparing dinner for his family, serving up everything from chicken a la king to perogy casserole.
In 2009 he applied and was accepted to Holland College in Prince Edward Island, home of the Culinary Institute of Canada. He spent two years there honing his skills — and attending his share of good ol’ fashioned Maritime kitchen parties — before returning to Winnipeg.
More chef jobs followed, including stints at Dacquisto (now closed) and Larters at St. Andrews Golf & Country Club. It was while he was working at the Manitoba Club, 194 Broadway, that the premises he now calls home showed up on his radar.
"A sushi restaurant had opened up in here but the story I heard was they were only around for six months, hadn’t been paying their rent and left in the middle of the night," says Graumann, who around the same time signed up with Futurpreneur Canada, a non-profit organization that provides guidance and financing to budding business owners. "My dad knew the landlord so we came down, took a look and liked what we saw."
Graumann, whose Day 1 menu consisted of homages to his hometown in the form of the Corydon Club and the Waverley Wrap, says it had long been his goal to open a cafeteria-style restaurant where sandwiches were the star of the show.
Though he doesn’t serve anything quite so simple, he has fond, childhood memories of shopping at De Luca’s with his parents and picking up "a whack" of capocollo, which he would turn around and devour plain on a freshly baked bun the second they returned home.
(That said, one sandwich from his youth, ham and potato chips between two slices of City rye bread, has shown up as a daily special from time to time, albeit with homemade chips versus Old Dutch, and house-cured ham versus deli-bought.)
Given its central location, a couple of blocks from Bell MTS Place, Nick’s has fed its share of famous faces, among them actors Sean Penn and Keanu Reeves, as well as members of American rock band Eagles of Death Metal.
But it was a fellow who travelled to Winnipeg from Great Britain a year after Nick’s opened whom Graumann enjoys talking about the most.
"Unbeknownst to any of us, he had been following us on social media from the get-go and I guess he liked what he was seeing because when he came to the city on a business trip, this was the very first place he went after his plane landed," he says. "He hadn’t even checked into his hotel yet. He showed up with his suitcases and announced he’d been wanting to eat here for a while."
In a subsequent, online review, Graumann’s British guest praised his meal, a pastrami sandwich ("tender and plentiful") served with garlic fries and a beet salad.
"Clearly a passionate and very proud individual who demonstrates it in his grub," the chap wrote, adding, "Thanks for the great lunch, I’ll be back before leaving for Blighty for sure."
Nick’s, cited by Food Network Canada as one of the country’s 12 "most awesome" sandwich shops, was already in a transition phase in March when in-person dining was temporarily halted owing to COVID-19.
Just before signing a new, five-year lease in November, Graumann had entered into negotiations with his landlord to almost double in size by adding an espresso bar that would open bright and early Monday to Friday. He also secured a liquor licence with the intention of remaining open in the evening as well, including Saturdays.
And while the necessary renovations are 95 per cent completed, he doesn’t have a date yet when the new, expanded Nick’s on Broadway will begin welcoming customers back inside.
"It wasn’t that big a deal in April and May when it was a virtual ghost town around here what with so many people working from home," says Graumann, whose menu is currently limited to a few "greatest hits" such as beef dip, turkey club and his take on a banh mi sandwich. (Let’s just say it’s a safe bet nobody in Vietnam has ever had a banh mi loaded to the hilt with cold cuts from Winnipeg Old Country Sausage.)
"But now that people are trickling back in for takeout, we’re getting a lot more questions about when we’re going to be fully up and running. For now we’re just playing it by ear. Hopefully it will be around Sept. 1 but you know how quickly things are changing nowadays."
Also, given his sandwich artistry — we mean, who could say no to a Cousin Vinny (bologna topped with olive pepper relish and arugula wedged between two slices of homemade focaccia) or a Scooby Snack, a 16-ounce behemoth that boasts every meat, vegetable and sauce in the fridge — it should come as little surprise to learn Graumann’s first part-time job, way back in Grade 10, was at a Subway franchise.
Not that he necessarily agrees with that chain’s chief tenet, "Have it your way."
"Not at all," Diane pipes in. "From time to time somebody will ask him to substitute this for that or they’ll request something strange like ketchup for their club (sandwich). He’ll do it, of course, but he won’t be happy about it. Because he puts so much effort into building his sandwiches just so, he believes that’s the way they should be enjoyed every single time."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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