Opinion

Joe Grande has transformed from an iconic Winnipeg restaurant owner into a pizza delivery guy.

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Joe Grande has transformed from an iconic Winnipeg restaurant owner into a pizza delivery guy.

"I’ve gone back to my roots," Grande, 60, who has owned Mona Lisa Ristorante on Corydon Avenue for the past 36 years, said with a chuckle this week.

"This is how we started — it was a pickup-and-delivery joint... and that’s what I’m doing right now: making and delivering pizzas."

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It is the harsh new reality for a veteran Winnipeg restaurateur at a time when the novel coronavirus pandemic is not only threatening health, but crunching the economy.

Like the vast majority of restaurants in Manitoba, family-run Mona Lisa has closed its doors to dine-in patrons to limit the spread of the virus, and now offers only pickup and evening delivery.

Joe, his wife, Alfina, and daughter, Elena, Mona Lisa’s general manager, sat down with the Free Press to share their struggle to keep a beloved local business running amid COVID-19 fears. (It says a lot about these difficult times that Joe, famed for greeting visitors with bear hugs, offered only a firm elbow bump to this columnist and longtime friend.)

Joe was quick to model a homemade, jet-black surgical-style face mask that, along with latex gloves, are key elements of his pandemic pizza delivery uniform. He said there’s a silver lining to returning to his roots — getting behind the wheel provides a break from the stress of worrying about the health of loved ones and the future of the business.

Joe Grande has owned Mona Lisa Ristorante on Corydon Avenue for 36 years. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

Joe Grande has owned Mona Lisa Ristorante on Corydon Avenue for 36 years. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

"To tell you the truth, it’s really peaceful, and I enjoy listening to the radio while I’m driving. It’s relaxing."

When the restaurant owner delivers to a longtime customer, they’re surprised to see him at the door.

"They're wondering how we're doing and how we're managing," he said. "They're going: ‘So why are you delivering?' and I say, ‘I’ve got nothing else to do but deliver.’"

The normally bustling restaurant is quiet, operated by a handful of family members and a few kitchen staff, who work alternating schedules.

"We probably laid off about 60 people out of a staff of 70," Joe said. "It's terrible. I just don't know what their life is like now without a job and supporting who they were supporting.

"I always felt good about having employees here — now we don't. And I don't even pay my kids."

Offered daughter Elena: "We have people like single moms who are students that work for us. It makes you feel sad because you want to make sure they are in an OK position as well."

Along with closing the doors to diners, Mona Lisa has stepped-up sanitization efforts, routinely disinfecting debit and credit machines and frequently-used surfaces.

Asked whether the restaurant will survive the economic impact of the pandemic, the normally ebullient Joe becomes reflective.

Mona Lisa started as a pickup-and-delivery restaurant, but Joe Grande didn't have to wear a mask back then. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

Mona Lisa started as a pickup-and-delivery restaurant, but Joe Grande didn't have to wear a mask back then. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I sure hope so," he said, softly. "It's hard to know because we don't know how long this is going to last... (Closing) is a possibility... and we are not the only ones feeling that, too."

The math is simple: it’s hard to keep your head above water when there’s more money going out than coming in.

"It's a probability, not a possibility. When you add up what we have to pay in a month... it's not just supplies, it's not just food. You've got to pay for your mortgage, your taxes, the property insurance... all of those things are going to add up in a month or two without any income coming in," Alfina said.

"We were in panic mode, but we've had several family meetings. Bottom line: if we don't open again, we’ll accept it sadly, but we're ready for it mentally... We're going to try our best to survive this economically and physically and as a family, with community help. As everyone's been saying: we're all in this together!"

The family worries for the future of the entire industry.

"I expect a lot of restaurants won’t be open after this is over," Joe said. "I don’t know which ones… I would say a quarter of the restaurants in Winnipeg might not reopen."

Meanwhile, the Grandes are trying to do something each day to support their community.

"We pick a family a night, a family we feel can’t get out or shut-ins or older people that can’t get out, we call them up and send them food," Joe said.

The family says the early days of the pandemic have been a nightmare, but they are working fiercely, and calmly, to come out the other end. They believe restaurants have a duty to help feed people in tough times.

Signs of the times at Mona Lisa. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

Signs of the times at Mona Lisa. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Initially, we were thinking we should stay open to look after people that don't have their facilities or the groceries," Joe said. "As it turns out, it wasn't a very comfortable feeling, we didn't know who was going to spread what, so we stopped doing that.

"I think what we’re doing right now (pickup and delivery) is important to feed the people who are at home — all the kids are at home, people aren't working. I've never seen this in my whole life, and that's a long time."

Joe was quiet when asked how the community could help local businesses struggling to stay open, but Elena was quick to answer.

"Keep ordering. I think honestly one of the best things people can do is help us through social media by sharing and liking and tagging people on our posts. It helps people to know we're open for pickup and delivery; it goes past our normal circle of people, and reaches people we couldn't reach," she said.

"They can do that for all local businesses to help them, and it's free."

While bracing for what they hoped would be a busy evening of takeout and deliveries, the Grandes expressed gratitude for the Winnipeggers going the extra mile to support local businesses.

"Somebody just texted me to say, ‘Hey, I want to support you. Can I buy a gift card?' I think it’s so nice people are thinking about us as a family and a local business," Elena said.

Joe, waiting for his first delivery shift, recalled one especially kind act.

"One of our very good customers, she's at the lake and can't order food from us, so she said put $100 on my card and give it to your staff that is working as a tip for what they're doing for everyone," he said with a smile.

Concluded Alfina: "It's incredible. It makes me cry. It's really touching."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.