When ordering a Special, you should know a thing or two.
It is always served with mustard; it is 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.
— The rules of Wilensky's
Ruth Wilensky may have taken her retirement but the family business that her late husband Moe started in 1932 is mercifully untouched. Wilensky's, Mile End's lunch counter shrine, still cranks out soda fountain drinks and Specials — that quintessential pressed sandwich of all-beef salami and all-beef bologna with mustard on a kaiser roll — production line-style, in much the same way it did from the start. Daughter Sharon Wilensky recently sat down to talk about the family business for Classics Week.
What are some of your earliest childhood memories of Wilensky’s?
We lived on Hutchison when I was little, until I was about six. I went to Alfred Joyce School, which was up the street. In terms of a general memory, I remember coming in here and twirling around. My first jobs were filling the gum machine and stamping the books. Which many years later I found out were mainly trashy novels. I remember once opening the door for some customers and my dad said, ‘Don’t do that, they’ll think we raised our prices.’ Like we had a doorman.
"The only time he really got angry at somebody was when they went to grab a knife to cut their sandwich."
What kind of boss was your father?
You’ll hear a lot of customers say, that if they went against some of the rules we have, that he threw them out. But I never saw him do that. People have this memory of him being stern but he was really funny. He was a people person. But he knew how he wanted to run the business. The only time he really got angry at somebody was when — because we don’t cut our sandwiches — was when they went to grab a knife to cut their sandwich. [Laughing] He got really mad at them. [Laughing] Maybe he threw them out.
Do you think this sense that Wilensky’s is stern adds to the mythology of the place?
Well maybe a little bit. There’s a bit of — look, when it’s really busy here, don’t bother me with your silly little requests. You know, we do it this way and certainly at that time, most of the people coming in were regulars. Now we have to have different sensibilities because people are tourists or first-timers or whatever. But at that time, a lot of kibbitzing. A lot of kibbitzing. I think people built up in their head what their memory was. People say, ‘Oh I remember when you had tables here.’ We never had tables.
"To be equated to the Soup Nazi is really taking it too far."
They’re thinking of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz movie.
They are. They are. Or there were a lot of places in the neighbourhood like this so they’re meshing them together. So people’s memories can be tricky. I think there’s a little bit of truth to it — it doesn’t come from nowhere but to be equated to the Soup Nazi or something is really taking it too far. To work with my dad was fine, you know, I was a teenager and I was always rolling my eyes. [Laughing] He’d tell me really sensible things and I was like ‘Leave me alone!’. But I learned so much working here.
And from your mother too, I imagine.
My mom worked here off and on her entire marriage. But we were five kids, so she was home. When I went to school, I went home for lunch. She was there. And there was a period of time, between two regular employees, when I was shunted off to a cousin’s house because she came in to work. But from the 70s on she worked full-time until she retired.
How long has she been retired now?
Two years. She’s 95 now.
"It’s not ‘Can you believe we’re 80 years old?’"
Are you as sentimental about this place as a lot of people are?
I think I am for sure, but in a very different way. Thinking about my dad and my late brother Bernard. I worked with him until I left for university. So it’s tied into that, into my memories of my family. When I came back to be part of the business, it was a whole different attitude. Then it was my job and I learned a lot about working with people and it was fun. Coming back 11 years ago it was a completely different take. And you know, we don’t talk about it at home. If I do it’s like ‘This annoys me, or that’ — it’s not ‘Can you believe we’re 80 years old?’ My kids couldn’t care less. So it’s a very different take. I look at it as my personal history.
"I think of places that were and still are special to me and I understand the feeling."
But I do understand how people see us. I think of places that were and still are special to me and I understand the feeling. As a matter of fact, my uncle had a grocery store on Mont-Royal which afterwards was Marché Richelieu, I don’t know if you remember that. It was near the metro and then it burned down. So one day — it was not long after I started working here — I walked in to Marché Richelieu. It was completely different but I still got this nostalgic feeling. Like the past came back to me. And I think that’s how some people feel when they walk in here.
[Pointing] That sign with the poem I made when I came back to work here, about the rules. They asked, ‘Can you make a sign about the rules?’ They were tired of explaining them. You’re always part of the business whether you’re working here or not. My sister did the calligraphy, she designed the postcards, the t-shirts, stuff like that. The new menus that are hanging outside. She’s never really worked here, physically. I remember one day when my dad had to go to the dentist, she worked here [laughing]. But she says she was here before that. I’m the youngest in the family so I don’t remember. And I have an older brother too and he does a lot of stuff, behind the scenes.
"The sign’s not old. But the rules are old."
So that sign is actually not that old.
The sign’s not old. But the rules are old.
Was it always your intention to come work here?
No. Not at all. I worked here until ‘80, ‘81. I was teaching English as a second language for 15 years. It was after my brother Bernard died that I started thinking about it. He died in 2000. They hired Paul [Scheffer], who’s an old friend of the family. I knew my mother was getting older and I just started thinking about it.
Did she drop hints that she wanted you here?
My brother and I started talking about it. My brother that works here [Asher]. Was she happy I came? I don’t know.
Is she not the expressive type?
[Chuckling] Well, she can make your life a little difficult. It was interesting for a while, you know, mothers and daughters. But two weeks after I came here, my brother had an appointment and my mother got sick or something, and all of a sudden I was closing. I had never done that before. It was obvious that it was really good to be five of us here. When you’re four, if something happens, it can be rather delicate.
"Suppliers have changed. But we’re getting the same products."
Has much changed in terms of the menu over the decades?
Suppliers have changed. But we’re getting the same products. The recipe for the bread is the same. It’s been passed on. The same kind of salamis. It’s really important. And you know, you always get some people who say ‘The sandwich used to be bigger’ or something. Well maybe you used to be smaller, we like to say [laughing]. But no we get people who haven’t been here for 30 years and they’ll say, it’s the same. It’s exactly the same.