Business as usual at Wilensky’s 75th anniversary
by Trina Ann Pion
Wilensky’s Light Lunch’s daily groove was nearly disrupted May 17 as reporters tried to ask the family, especially Ruth Wilensky, 87, about their 75th anniversary. But as history has shown, its routine will not be broken.
“Now? You want to do this now? No! This is not the time for that,” Ruth exclaimed sternly. She then turned to her next customer, offered him a warm smile and took his order.
Every inch of the tiny corner eatery was filled with obtrusive reporters and their cameras, devoted customers bearing gifts and congratulations, or regulars wanting to celebrate with a “special.” But the Wilensky family was only concerned with serving customers and following their policies, which have not changed in 75 years.
“When you read about anniversaries in the newspapers there are always big celebrations, ” said Ruth’s granddaughter, Alisa Wilensky. “Here it’s totally different.”
“Most of the media came earlier, so it worked out okay,” said Ruth’s daughter, Sharon Wilensky, a few days later, explaining that the family celebrated later that day with cake, and watched a video full of Wilensky memories. “Everyone was really happy for us. Many customers wished us happy birthday like the restaurant was a living entity.”
Wilensky’s is not like other restaurants. People come from all over and travel back in time once they enter its doors. Newspaper clippings and advertisements from as early as 1908 adorn the walls. From the wobbly wooden stools to the cabinets, everything is from the original location.
“We were on St. Urbain’s for 20 years, and when we moved we took everything with us,” Sharon said.
The restaurant has been on the southeast corner of Clarke and Fairmont since 1952. “The counter broke during the move, though, so it was remade to look exactly like the old one. Still, there are elbow grooves on this one. You can see the erosion from sheer use, ” Sharon continued.
Wilensky’s became internationally known when Mordecai Richler’s book The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was made into a movie in 1974.
Sharon explained the changes that were made for the film. “There were tables in the movie; we never had tables. They had a pinball machine; we used to have one. Signs with prices were taken down; they put up their own signs.
“It was set in the 40s but made in the 70s, so they took away any evidence of new technology. They even checked the books to make sure everything was accurate for the time period, but they didn ’t have to change a lot.”
The film makers still wouldn’t have to change a lot. Of course, some things are new. The cash register and the elements on the grill have been updated. The front window used to read Moe Wilensky’s Light Lunch, but that had to change when the language laws came into effect.
But, for the most part, things are exactly the same. The menu has hardly changed since 1932. There are karnatzlah, thin pepperoni-like sausages, hot dogs, unadorned cheese sandwiches and egg salad sandwiches. Cherry Cola and other drinks are dispensed from a fountain from the 1930s. The special, consisting of mustard, salami and bologna grilled on a round roll, still excites taste buds.
“I’ve been coming to Wilensky’s since 1950,” said Ben Geiger. “I come for the sandwich itself. I must enjoy it since I come all the way from Laval for it.
“I also come for the nostalgia. It was exactly the same here then as it is today. Some of the stores have changed, some of the people – the people’s ethnicity. Wilensky’s hasn’t changed, though, and that’s a good thing.”
Morty Marks has been frequenting Wilensky’s since 1940. He lives in Florida but never misses a chance to stop in for the “special” while in Montreal.
Maurice Libstug has been a Wilensky’s customer since 1976. “I get the special, like most people,” he said. “The special has never changed, the price has, but never the special.”
A sign is posted over the counter with the special’s eight prices, from 12¢ in 1932 to $3.50 in 2007.
Another sign is a poem explaining the policy for ordering a special:
“When ordering a special
You should know a thing or two
They are always served with mustard
They are never cut in two
Don’t ask us why, just understand
That this is nothing new
This is the way that it’s been done since 1932.”
Geiger remembers people being charged extra for “no mustard” specials.
“It’s meshuga (crazy in Yiddish), but the place has a policy,” Geiger said, laughing as he explained some of the rules. “I remember getting my order and waiting in the back for a friend. I took my sandwich out of the bag and started eating it. [The late] Moe Wilensky came out from behind the counter and said ‘you ordered take out. Take it out.’”
Sharon explained that the rules are there for a reason, such as the no tipping policy.
“My father, Moe, didn’t want the guy who tips more to think that he’ll get better service. He wanted the same service for everyone,” she said. “Any tips that we do get are donated to the Heart & Stroke Foundation.”
People who request knives, straws and other things that are not routine are turned down firmly and are considered “high maintenance” not only by the staff but by customers as well.
This included us that day, when we politely asked for a knife to cut our egg sandwich because we wanted to share it. Some of the regulars will set new customers up by telling them to ask for their sandwiches cut in two.
“My grandfather (Harry) came from Russia with a Russian Jewish philosophy,” Sharon said. “His way of thinking was ‘If I do something for you, I have to do it for everyone else.’ If we cut one person’s roll then another customer will say ‘oh, but you did it for him’ and then we would have to do it for everyone. That would slow down production. Customers would get angry because being fast is our thing.”
Sharon said that her brother, Asher, and Scott Druzin know the regulars’ orders so well that when the customers come to the counter their orders are already on the table.
“If they don’t want Cherry Cola that day, people call out as soon as they enter the door to let them know, ” she said. “It makes people feel good when restaurants pay attention like that.”
Many customers come from all over for that good service. They also come for a sense of home and to reminisce with Ruth about the old days.
“Sometimes she remembers them, sometimes she doesn’t. She’s worked here forever. She used to tell people that she only started working here after my dad died, but when she watched the video at the party, she was surprised, turned to me and said ‘I was there a lot, wasn’t I?’” Sharon’s voice swelled with pride. “My mother is 87 and she looks phenomenal. What can I say? She’s great.”
Many reporters, including us, never did get to interview Ruth that day. She was too busy working beside her children, serving her customers by taking orders with that warm smile of her ’s. Happy Birthday Wilensky’s!