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March 30, 2015

End of era for city's oldest A&W

Crowds attend farewell event for beloved Portage Avenue location

Posted: 03/29/2015 3:00 AM

THE oldest A&W in Winnipeg and quite probably the very first A&W in the country grilled its last burger Saturday at its original location.

Dozens showed up for a send-off at the burger joint with iconic orange-and-brown signage.

They snacked on party cake and ice cream and posed for selfies with the A&W Root Bear mascot, who shambled from table to table greeting customers.

The A&W at 3095 Portage Ave. closed for good Saturday night. It will reopen April 9 at a new eatery about a block east on Portage at Sturgeon Road.

"When the girl handed me my breakfast this morning, she said, "Congratulations. This is your last breakfast here. You're going to have a bit of a holiday before we open the new location," Ray Wiebe recounted Saturday.

"I figure it's a story people should know. It's part of Winnipeg, even if it's just moving down the street. I believe this was the first one in Canada that was opened," Wiebe said.

Franchise owner Cathy Earle said if there's a story behind why A&W picked the St. James location as its entry into the Canadian market, it's a question she couldn't answer.

Earle was busy cutting cake and dishing up ice cream for free to customers at an afternoon party, to mark the end of one era and the start of a new one. "That's a good question," she said, quickly adding, "We're reopening on the corner there," pointing out the front windows that overlooked Portage with a plastic cake knife.

A sign taped on the front window announced Saturday as the final day of business and gave the opening date and address of the new location.

Inside, there was a party atmosphere, with laughter and jokes laden with memories: high school kids who hung out there, couples who met there and later married, new parents who brought their children in for their first burgers.

Some were back Saturday, including five couples who met their spouses as 20-somethings in the 1980s, all crowded into corner tables.

"That's how we met," said Brenda McCarthy, who was at a crowded couples' table. "I worked here when I met Ian," she said, giving her husband a fond glance.

"We actually came here on our wedding day," she added "And the Root Bear was at our wedding. We had our first dance with him," she said.

"The three of you?" she was asked, breaking the table up into gales of laughter.

"Out of all of us, these marriages," said her husband, after the laughter died down, "not one of us has divorced, which is really remarkable."

A&W opened its first Winnipeg location in 1956 in St. James on Portage Avenue near the corner of Kirkfield Street.

Over the decades, its iconic carhops gradually gave way to indoor counters and drive-thru windows.

Miss Teen Canada made an appearance in 1968 in a plaid swing coat and matching straight pants, proudly holding up an A&W stein of frothy root beer. A photo of her in her retro plaid still hung on the wall of fame Saturday afternoon.

Lori Middendorp and her husband, Roger Dezan, brought their first baby by on the way home.

"We stopped with our first child when we came home from the hospital," Middendorp laughed. "That was in the days before there were coffee shops like Tim Hortons or Starbucks. This is where we'd meet."

"We told him he'd better get used to the place," cracked her husband.

"Lucas is 18 now," added Middendorp.

Once part of the U.S.-based A&W Restaurants, A&W was sold to Unilever in 1972 then bought by its Canadian-owned management in 1995. It's now known as A&W Food Services Canada.

alexandra.p...@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2015 A3

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