As vehicles tumbled down Salter Street Monday morning, some were on their way to work, others to school. For the first time in nearly 600 days, Marvin Roos was on his way home.
He pulled off of Salter into a small, gravel parking lot, behind a tiny house with an exterior adorned with monarch butterflies, at half-past nine, stepping out of his pickup truck and back into his usual spot: a seat at the counter at Luda’s Deli.
Roos started going to Luda’s once or twice a week four years ago, when he moved to Winnipeg from Ste. Rose du Lac, but he stopped last March, when, thanks to the pandemic, everybody stopped coming to Luda’s, from doting sons with their aging mothers, to people looking to get a taste of Ukraine in the form of the deli’s famous borscht, even to owners Tracy Konopada and Kristi Clarke, Konopada’s daughter.
For 84 weeks, the tables at Luda’s were bare, the flat-top grill lacking butter and onions, the Bunn O Matic coffee maker waiting to be flipped on. While most restaurants in the city had either remained open or closed their doors for good, Luda’s — a standalone link in a world full of chains — was somewhere in the middle, leaving longtime customers hoping, rather, praying, that they had not tasted their last kubasa and eggs.
Such was the case for Roos. "I drove by many times to see if the plywood was off the windows," he said. When he found out that day would come on Nov. 1, he circled the date in his brain’s calendar, texting Kristi Konopada to make sure it was actually happening — that Luda’s would be back.
When he took his seat, he didn’t even have to order. After nearly two years, Kristi still knew his usual: ham and eggs, over easy, rye toast, hash browns, raspberry jam. "Nothing changed," he said.
Since opening in 1987, that’s been mostly true of the restaurant, whose name comes from the Ukrainian word for "people," lyudy. For 34 years, it’s been there, at 410 Aberdeen Ave., as the neighbourhood changed and as the lyudy changed. But for the last 18 months, it wasn’t. Each day that passed, Tracy Konopada yearned to get back to her natural habitat, but resisted reopening as the world kept changing and as new rules, new restrictions, and new ways of doing things that just wouldn’t have worked at Luda’s were announced. The deli is small, not much bigger than Roos’ pickup truck, with conversations criss-crossing over each other like an auditory lattice. To put up plexiglass would have been in direct opposition to Luda’s unofficial mission statement.
Plus, Konopada — a true baba — was concerned for safety. "Safety first," she said. When vaccines were required for dine-in service, she started to warm to the idea of reopening. Kristi put up a post on Facebook to announce the tentative date of Nov. 1 in October: it was shared hundreds of times.
As November neared, the Konopadas worked to make up for lost time: to order products, to adjust menu costs, to fill staff openings, to do what felt like 600 days of work in about 21.
On the first day back, Tracy, Kristi, and Kristi’s son Knowle arrived at 7 a.m., with the calendar beside the fridge still flipped to March 2020. None knew what to expect. They remembered the customers. Would the customers remember them?
Wayne and Lori Smith did. They sat in the back corner, underneath a portrait of Patsy Cline, ordering sausage and eggs and bologna and eggs, with rye toast. "They greet you by name here," said Lori. "It’s like eating at mom’s," said Wayne, who picked up a container of borscht for his mother on Monday, the day before her 94th birthday.
Server Tina Baryluk danced coffee from table to table, singing out offers to freshen up the empty mugs. "Are you finished?" she asked a man biting into a slice of toast. "I’m just savouring," he replied. "It has been two years."
The same scene kept repeating: people sitting down and not wanting to stand up, before finally rising to the register, where the Konopadas asked about their children, their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews, recalling details from their customers’ lives as if reading from cue cards.
Roos got up around 10:30 a.m., to pay and say goodbye, walking out to his truck with a smile revealed after he removed his mask.
"You know, other places, bigger places, opened back up, but when I go in there, it’s a mother and daughter trying to make a living," he said. "To me, that’s home."
More customers finished up. "We’ll be seeing you ladies," a man in an MTS jacket said. "Stay safe."
"We’ll be here," replied Kristi Konopada.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.