John Ginakes (proprietor of Winnipeg restaurants including Thunderbird and Johnny G’s) and Demitris Scouras (Red Top) give us a glimpse into the community business networks established by post-WWII Greek immigrants that created some of Winnipeg's beloved burger joints.
Interview participants: John Ginakes and Demitris Scouras
Written and Narrated by Zachary Hamilton
Produced by Kent Davies
Episode Image by Kimberley Moore
Theme Music by Robert Kenning
John Ginakes and Demitris Scouras, interviewed by Zachary Hamilton, December 15, 2017 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Manitoba Food History Project, “Winnipeg Interviews," Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
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KENT DAVIES: You’re listening to Preserves: A Manitoba Food History Podcast. Exploring the rich, flavourful history of Manitoba food and the people who make it, sell it, and eat it.
From the packing table to the dinner table, from restaurant specials to grandma’s secret recipes, we consider the cultural, social, and commercial aspects of Manitoba Food and what it means to us. I’m your host Kent Davies As per usual I’m joined by food and business historian Professor Janis Thiessen.
So Janis, what’s in the pantry today?
JANIS THIESSEN: Today, our episode is about the Greek connection to Manitoba burger restaurants.
KENT DAVIES: Oh man, okay; I love those places. I’m a VJ’s regular.
JANIS THIESSEN: Me too. The VJ’s chili cheese dog late at night. Nothing better.
KENT DAVIES: I go in for the VJ’s chili burger. They can never give you enough napkins.
JANIS THIESSEN: It’s true. We should go get some now.
KENT DAVIES: Yes, we should, but before that let’s continue on with this episode.
JANIS THIESSEN: Fine.
KENT DAVIES: So, like our first episode, once again we have a University of Winnipeg student that helped produce the episode, Zachary Hamilton. And who did he interview for the Greek burger restaurant connection?
JANIS THIESSEN: He interviewed Demitris Scouras whose family has owned the legendary Red Top restaurants since 1960, and he also interviewed Johnny Ginakes.
KENT DAVIES: That’s Johnny G! His restaurants are super famous in Winnipeg for being the go to place for late night eating.
JANIS THIESSEN: Yes and he’s owed many other burger restaurants including the famous Thunderbird in Winnipeg’s north end.
KENT DAVIES: That’s been open for decades. Do either of them share, one of their, you know, famous Greek burger chili recipes?
JANIS THIESSEN: Not quite. But most importantly John Ginakes provides a glimpse into the support networks set up by Greek immigrants in the post-War era. Those networks were essential in creating many of the long-time food based businesses in Winnipeg.
KENT DAVIES: Alright, let’s give it a listen. I have a feeling we’re going to have to go for VJ’s after this.
JANIS THIESSEN: Definitely.
ZACH HAMILTON: For someone coming to Winnipeg, it doesn’t take long to notice the hamburger takes centre stage in the city’s culinary landscape. There are several drive-ins scattered throughout the city, which deal more-or-less exclusively in burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Ask a Winnipegger where to find the city’s best burger and you will likely be directed to one of these institutions. As I became more familiar with these hamburger stands in the months after moving to the city in 2013, I became more and more certain this is a distinct Winnipeg phenomenon. I knew there was a story behind this if I could just find the right people to talk to.
I’m Zach Hamilton with the Manitoba Food History Project.
Thinking about Winnipeg’s burger history, there are two questions that wouldn’t leave me alone. First, what’s the story behind the topping of chili sauce so commonly served on the burgers? Second, why are such a majority of local burger places owned or founded by Greek Canadians? Could there be a connection here? In search of answers, I reached out to the Scouras family, owners of the long-standing Red Top Drive Inn on St. Mary’s Road. One of the founders’ sons, Demitris, told me he was happy to help, but if I wanted the full story I should get in touch with a man named John Ginakes.
John may be better known to locals as “Johnny,” founder of his namesake restaurant, Johnny G’s, among other celebrated Winnipeg eateries. I met with John and Demitris to talk about the beginnings of Winnipeg’s Greek burger scene. As for my question about the chili sauce, the answer was actually pretty straight-forward, except John had forgotten his name. H e knew it was Peter something and he came from Thunder Bay.
JOHN GINAKES: Peter... I forget his last name now, what it is. He was the originator, that he brought the chili in town. Yeah, somebody from Thunder Bay [unclear] an old-timer; he was born and raised where his father came from, from Romani. Then afterwards, they pass it on. They passed on the recipe. Some people they were willing to give the recipe. Some people, they developed their own, anything else, because if you have something good to use you don’t want to give it to somebody else. So this is the same thing [as] with everybody else, you have a recipe, you try to keep it to yourself. But the majority of one Greek will give it to another Greek, so one guy is John Scouras, his [Demitris’s] dad, he was in St. Vital, and I’m in McPhillips, he’s no competition to me. You understand what I’m saying? We all tried to help one another, some way, somehow.
ZACH HAMILTON: So it turns out my imagination got the better of me, and I got a little bit less intrigue and mystique than I expected with the recipe. However, John’s mention that one Greek will give it to another was promising in answering my more important question about Greek burger stand ownership in Manitoba. To do this, John starts us off in the mid-twentieth century.
JOHN GINAKES: Well, they came in in 1954. The boys that came in then, they weren’t very well-educated to press on and go in anything else. So they never had the strength they should go to school so that way they get off the boat, they have to go to work. So they scrounge, they save, and they put a few dollars together, they’d be able to put up a hamburger stand. So they work on whatever –– themselves mostly –– and this is what the success for afterwards [is]. By being in many years in business, and hard work, this is your achievement now.
We all worked for no less than fifteen, sixteen hours a day, because don’t forget we came here we didn’t have nothing in our pockets. When I got off in Halifax I only had twenty dollars in my pocket to make it from Halifax to Winnipeg. So we had to work. In those days the minimum wage was only fifty-four cents an hour. But fifty-four cents was fifty-four cents though. You could have bought a lot of things: a cup of coffee was only a nickel, a hamburger was only fifteen cents, french fries was ten cents. So things, they weren’t so bad. But everything equivalent to that; rent was cheap, to rent a place. We all lived on 315 Vaughn Street. The most of the immigrants, they came in because it could be affordable, the rooms they were nineteen dollars a month.
ZACH HAMILTON: Hard work is a necessary ingredient to success, and a low cost of living doesn’t hurt, but Demitris and John also placed value on Winnipeg’s Greek community, and their willingness to help out new immigrants from Greece.
JOHN GINAKES: Well we had a small community. The old-timers they bought a place on the corner of Ellice and Vaughan. We had a priest come in once a month that would do our church for us. And the old-timers, some of us after the church, they used to take us and give us their hospitality in their own homes so they could treat us, because most of us then, there were no parents there, nothing, so just alone by ourselves.
The thing about the Greeks, they’re very... Philoxenia, see, which is very hospitable people. They know how it is to treat a person, how to take and give. Because we’re the kind of people that will grow up... We come from the villages where we didn’t have much, so we didn’t... Because all of a sudden we have a business, maybe we have a few more dollars than everybody else, because of the reason we had that, because of the times that we put ourselves in the restaurants for fifteen, sixteen hours a day like Demitris said. Me and his dad came here when he had nothing either, but he had a couple brothers here, and I had a brother here; at least we had somebody that could pay the rent.
ZACH HAMILTON: While these stories help show a hospitable Greek community in the city, they don’t explain the emergence of a city-wide culinary sensation. On this topic, Demitris and John were able to shed some light on a sort of informal business network among Greek-Canadians in the city. This network encouraged Greek newcomers to start a business of their own.
DEMITRIS SCOURAS: So some of the stories that I remember my dad telling me –– and you can probably attest to this –– is when a new Greek immigrant a new young boy would come to the city a lot of the current people who lived here that started a restaurant or were in the restaurant, would take them under their wing and bring him in, give him a job, whether it was a dishwasher, whether it was...
JOHN GINAKES: Well, this is what was, this is what was. They help us, you know what I mean? They were the people that had restaurants, some of the people had flower shops, there was a grandma’s fruit market, that was on the corner of Vaughan and Portage, they had a candy store there, they used to sell fruit and anything else, so they hired a couple boys to do cleanups, teach them how to do candies, and everything else vice-versa. But the young ladies most of them coming in those years, they used to be going to work in the factories, as a seamstress; most of it because –– like I said ––because the lack of education, lack of not being able to speak the language, so this is... We did what we could do.
ZACH HAMILTON: In John’s experience, many of these Greek newcomers to Canada got their start in food service with the goal of eventually owning their own restaurant:
JOHN GINAKES: What can I say... There was a gentleman, all the restaurants they had... There was the [partly studio room?] restaurant, if he had a room that he could give you, become a dishwasher from there, he graduated to learn how to make a hamburger, or to learn to do some cooking, evolved. And we all, afterwards, we went on our own. One of us... either it would be brothers or it would be other people, used to get together and maybe one guy had a couple thousand dollars, the other guy had a couple more thousand dollars, we combine it together and we went into business.
ZACH HAMILTON: The transmission of knowledge and resources is not unique to this community. For instance, a few decades earlier, in California, Italian immigrants were creating similar networks for the production and distribution of wine. In the case of Winnipeg’s Greek burger scene, there were connections to be made outside of the ethnic community. John remembers reaching out to more traditional resources to start a business.
JOHN GINAKES: The way most of us would raise the money –– we wanted to open up restaurants –– was the... Like, Modern Dairies was the one that would help us to go ahead with it. The reason that he helped us was because we were able to use his merchandise. We had to buy the milk, the cream, the ice cream from them, and that was their way they helped us. And the banks, was more lenience there, that you’d be able to get a small loan we didn’t need very big loans to open up a restaurant. With twenty-five, thirty thousand dollars you could open up an establishment, a restaurant. Not like today you need half a million dollars or more to open up a restaurant.
ZACH HAMILTON: Once the restaurant was open, the real work would begin. Demitris and John both talk about the need for self-enforced overworking and underpaying to get the restaurant off the ground. It may have been hard work, but John and Demitris say the self-reliance and kinship made it worth the effort.
JOHN GINAKES: And I say to each young fella. If he’s willing to invest fifteen, sixteen hours working for someone else, why don’t you do it for yourself? If you can find a way to do this job on your own, you’ll be more successful, instead of having somebody else to do what you do.
DEMITRIS SCOURAS: You know, the story that was always impressed upon me, my father, when him and Gus started the Red Top there, he would give his wages to my uncle, because he had 2 young kids at the time, now 3, but he needed to feed the kids, and my dad would say “You know what? I’ll be OK, I can eat french fries at the restaurant, you go feed your kids, you take my salary, and...”
JOHN GINAKES: That’s what it is, that’s how we got by, we help one another.
ZACH HAMILTON: For these budding restaurateurs, establishing themselves also involved establishing their restaurant as a positive presence in the community. This would prove especially important in providing a unique experience that set them apart from increasingly popular fast food chains. Demitris looks to the success of his family’s restaurant as an example.
DEMITRIS SCOURAS: I think one of the bigger successes I’ve seen though for like the Thunderbird restaurant and the Red Top and Juniors, is that if you went to the restaurant you would see the owner there. He was in there saying hello to you, he was cooking your food, he was washing the dishes, he was spending the half an hour to get to know you and create a relationship with you, and really involved themselves in the customers’ lives. And I think the customers appreciated that, and that’s why you get so much loyalty and that’s why you ended up getting these landmark institutions like the Thunderbird, like the Red Top where, you know, you had – I’ll speak from our side you’ve had these tragedies, you know my father passed away ten years ago, my brother passed away, but the customers still come in because of, you know, my mom’s there every day; she’s there in the morning she’s there if you come in the afternoon. John will probably share some stories here too, but you know –– and I won’t mention names –– but there’s been pretty well-do-do people in the city who when they were eighteen or nineteen would come into the restaurant and would be sitting in a booth crying and my dad would pull them into the back in the hall and say, “What’s going on?” “I just lost my job at, you know, at the Tribune, I have rent to pay, I have this car payment, I have nothing, I’m broke and I don’t know what to do.” And my dad would say “Well, here. Here’s a couple thousand dollars, take care of what you need to do, cover your debts, find a job, start work.” And you can pay him back whenever you have the money. The guy would say, you know, “I’ll pay you back with interest,” and my dad – I’m sure John was the same way –– would say you don’t need to give me any interest.
JOHN GINAKES: If a young fella come in... There was the hotel across the street, they used to go to across the street, they have a few drinks, they come to the restaurant. A lot of guys they say, “John, I have got no money.” I say “Sit down and eat. If you remember someday, you go by and you pay me,” and nobody ever cheated me. They always come back later, and they try to pay me double. I say “No, no. This is what you owe me, this is what you pay and that’s all there is to it. You’re more than welcome at any time.” That why I had no problems, had lots of good memories, and good friendships.
ZACH HAMILTON: Small-scale restaurants can serve as a steppingstone for ventures that require a larger investment. This is seen more recently with food trucks as a temporary stop on the way to owning a restaurant. John eventually made his way to having multiple licensed, sit-down restaurants in the city. But even before this he made a highly ambitious investment: a nightclub stocked with a roster of high-profile acts right in the heart of downtown Winnipeg.
JOHN GINAKES: We had pretty good success. The only problem that we had when we opened up the nightclub, because high cost was the entertainment. In order to bring somebody from Chicago, look what it’s got to count. You got to bring somebody from... Mostly the entertainment we brought, all the nostalgia, there was: Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Frank Sinatra Jr., what’s his name Jerry Lewis’ son, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole; Nat King Cole, his daughter, she was here. We were paying her, and then when she left, because she didn’t do very good drawing –– because she was known –– but when she went back to New York, after that she phones us, and says “You people can’t afford to have me,” because she was a hundred thousand dollars a week entertainment.
ZACH HAMILTON: John took this blow in stride, chalking it up to a life lesson, and continued with his original task of bringing burgers to the masses, and establishing himself as a member of Winnipeg’s burger royalty.
JOHN GINAKES: It’s very costly. Better off to sell hamburgers and French fries than have to deal with them. But lessons cost you money -- put you back 20 years.
ZACH HAMILTON: While John and Demitris have established that there is a lot of hard work and networking involved in starting a business, John also describes a challenge unique to those trying to establish themselves in a foreign country.
JOHN GINAKES: Of the challenges, the toughest thing was the language. That you had to have people repeat the same word maybe three or four times before you understand what they mean. Especially when coming here I worked in a shoe shine parlour. Mr. Blicq –– he owned the CJOB –– he used to come in, I used to shine his shoes, and he asked me questions; I used to go “mmhm, mmhm...” And the gentleman, that was a Greek he asked Mr. Blicq, he asks “Is there something wrong with this young fella?” Mr. Blicq says, “It’s not that easy, because he’s an immigrant, he doesn’t understand what you’re saying.” This is what the biggest problem. But as you go along you learn; you have to learn. So this is the biggest problem, the same thing if you were to go to Greece, or you go to France, or you go to Germany, the first maybe six months or year, you will find it very tough for you to communicate. And you say “I’m ready to put my hands up in the air and I gotta go back where I come from.” This it is, but today, the immigrants mostly, they come in, they all speak the language. Each young Greek coming in today, they speak the language very fluently, even if they come from Ethiopia or they come, the majority of them, they speak English.
ZACH HAMILTON: Of course, the challenges posed by language barriers persist for some even today. For example, many Mexican food truck owners in Columbus, Ohio see the language barrier as a hindrance to both their mobility within the city and their ability to effectively deal with other parties, such as banks. However, this situation is more complex, as many of them do not have U.S. citizenship, which means they need to be conscious of their visibility.
Winnipeg’s network of Greek-Canadian business owners gives us a nice case study for the long-standing tradition of informal ethnic business networks occurring during diaspora. John and Demitris’ stories have a somewhat universal flavour to them, as many aspects of the experiences described in the interview can be seen across North America. Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restaurateur proposes both kin networks, such as the Greek-owned restaurant network, and self-imposed long hours similar to that experienced by Demitris’ father and John, as key elements of success for an immigrant opening a restaurant. This is alongside more widely acknowledged factors like a low capital requirement for certain types of restaurant such as hamburger stands, or more recently, food trucks. Having access to sources of resources and knowledge was an invaluable asset to somebody entering the restaurant industry in twentieth-century Winnipeg. As a beneficiary of this asset in his earlier years, John continued the tradition of passing on knowledge when he retired.
JOHN GINAKES: The people who took over my restaurant now that I’m renting it out, of course, I passed on the recipes, and everything else, how to do the chickens, to do everything that I did. You see, today, the people say gravy, nobody makes gravy anymore, it all comes in the bags. You put it on the pot, put a little water, you mix it up, and out it goes. But we used to boil bones, and we get the juices out of it, and that’s how we made the gravy.
ZACH HAMILTON: Like his cooking techniques, John’s way of doing business is old-fashioned. At the risk of sounding clichéd, Winnipeg’s Greek burger joints, and the networks behind them, are an artifact from a simpler time.
JOHN GINAKES: There’s an old saying in Greek: [saying in Greek]. The translation of this is “Your words fill up my stomach, but it’s OK, you can keep it.” Understand what I’m saying? This is because our start as a young boy, as you grow up, like his father grew up in the village and everything else, that we knew how to share and give to one another -- to go on in life. But today, it’s a different world we’re living in. Maybe we’re living in the fast lane. Maybe the parents, they haven’t got the time to sit down, and have communication with the families.
ZACH HAMILTON: Times may have changed, but the creation of kinship and business ties in Winnipeg’s Greek community helped shape the culinary landscape of the city to this day, and the resulting economic mobility for new immigrants to Canada in twentieth-century Winnipeg carried over to Demitris’ generation. Winnipeg’s burger history goes to show that investigating something as trivial seeming as a food trend can open up stories of cultural and economic significance.
KENT DAVIES: You have been listening to Preserves: A Manitoba Food History Podcast, produced by myself, Kent Davies; researched, written and narrated by Zachary Hamilton; hosted by Janis Thiessen and myself; Kimberley Moore creates the photos and images that accompany each podcast and is also our web designer; Sarah Story is our project coordinator; our theme music is by Robert Kenning. Preserves is recorded at the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre. You can check out the OHC and all the work we do at oralhistorycentre.ca. For more Manitoba Food History Project content, information, and events go to manitobafoodhistory.ca; we’re also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Preserves is made possible by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and assistance from the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg.