There are just a few days left if you want to sink your teeth into one of Wagon Wheel’s club house sandwiches. On July 13, 2012 the downtown institution will be closing its doors for good.
The Wagon Wheel Lunch set up shop in a redeveloped Norlyn Building on Monday, December 3, 1951. In 1958 Bill Mathez (pronounced Math-AY) took over and a third generation of the family now run it. (For more history of the Wagon Wheel.).
Last year, tenants of the Norlyn Building received notice that their leases would not be renewed as the building was to be torn down as part of the Longboat / SHED development.Finding a new home for a “Mom and Pop” breakfast and lunch-only restaurant, though, proved more difficult than it sounds.
For decades the city has tried to redevelop downtown with mega-projects such as Portage Place, Place Promenade, the Hydro Tower and SHED development, all of which led to the demolition of numerous square blocks of small, older, side-street buildings where small, independent businesses like this would call home.
The options for a comparable space were limited and the cost of redeveloping a newer space too great so the decision was made to close the doors.
I was introduced to many of Winnipeg’s classic lunch spots back in the 1990s when I had the good fortune to work with a retired city administrator. He was old-school, the type that got up early every Saturday morning and journeyed to numerous shops across the North End to pick up his favourite bread, bagels, meat, sausage, cheese, perogies etc.. Not a one-stop, Safeway kind of guy.
He introduced me to many of the classic, independent lunch spots such as DeLuca’s, Wagon Wheel, Paradise and Rae & Gerry’s. He knew every owner and most of the staff by name, just as they knew his.
Last week I spent an afternoon at Wagon Wheel with a couple of local filmmakers who are making a documentary about the place. We talked about what the differences will be between Wagon Wheel and the TGIFridays, Outback or whatever U.S. chain restaurants that will surely pop up as part of the new development.
Something that struck me back in the 1990s was a feeling that lunching at these places was the difference between watching a play and being in a play. Here, you become part of the cast. The chit chat with the staff and owner is free of corporate office-enforced pleasantries. Your interaction with other regulars, even if just a nod of the head, is more than just a reflex action.
Another thing that you just won’t find is the sense of duty that patrons have to these places and, in turn, the owners have for their customers.
When Louis Mathez’s wife Marina died in 1994, he surprised customers by opening up the next day. He told the Free Press: “This is where I belong. My wife would have wanted me to be here. Besides, when you have a business you have to attend to it. You have to be loyal to your customers, even today.” (Source: Diner looses it’s soul, Winnipeg Free Press, Feb. 19, 1994.)
Last week, Louis’ sister stopped by the restaurant while I was there. When asked what Louis would have thought about the closure she said that “He would have felt sad … like he was letting everyone down.”
Whatever replaces the Wagon Wheel will different and because of more than just the menu options. Be sure to check it out before it’s gone.