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Friday, 15 January 2021

The rebirth of Modern Electric Lunch

© 2021, Christian Cassidy

There was a rebirth of a century-old downtown café name late last year when Modern Electric Lunch opened on the main floor of the Fortune Block. The original "Electric Lunch" opened there in 1919 and through changes in ownership became Modern Electric Lunch from 1926 to 1934 and Winnipeg Electric Lunch from 1934 to 1945.

I had some inside information about the possibility of reviving the name when I was contacted by the  building's developers who found stacks of receipts for "Modern Electric Lunch" when they were renovating. As fate would have it, they were considering opening a café in the space and asked me to look into the history of the business. Here is what I found:

April 27, 1925, Winnipeg Free Press

The origin of the café's name dates back to the Electric Lunch opened by the Murphy family in 1917 in the now demolished Commonwealth Block further north at 526 Main Street at James Avenue.

The family consisted of John and Margaret Murphy, husband and wife, and John’s brother, Henry. They came from England together in 1902 and by this time all lived together on Donald Street. John and Margaret had a son, Montague, born in 1911.

Their food empire expanded in 1919 when Mrs. Murphy opened Murphy’s Fish and Chips at 881 Sherbrook Street and John and Harry opened “Electric Lunch No. 2” at 234 Main Street in the Fortune Block. (The original 526 Main Street location was then re-branded “Electric Lunch No. 1”.)

May 2, 1925, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1925, the Murphys consolidated their operations back to their original 526 Main Street location and newspaper ads for the fortune Block's Electric Lunch No. 2 noted that the family had "no further connection" the business.

The new owners were Anjelo J. Valentine of 118 Machray Street and Harry Romanuk of 390 Salter Street.

Valentine was a long-time restaurant manager, most recently at George Stanley’s Restaurant at 538 Main Street. He was also secretary of the Restaurant Keepers Association of Winnipeg. Romanuk had been the chef at C V Café at 353 Main Street. 

The duo began offering a “businessman’s lunch” with four-course meals perhaps as a way to reach a higher class of clientele than the railway workers it served as a café. (See below for a sample menu.) 

Source: The Fortune Block management

In 1926, the Murphys left Main Street to open Radio Lunch on Sargent Avenue and the two cafes were re-branded "Modern Electric Lunch No. 1", run by a Mr. Simkin, and "Modern Electric Lunch No. 2", run by Valentine and Romanuk.

Aside from the name, it is unlikely that there was any connection between the two cafés. Soon after the renaming, No. 1 underwent a major expansion and renovation into an upscale tea room.

In 1929, Romanuk left the café to work for the CPR and Valentine may have retired or moved from the city as he no longer appeared in local street directories.

Oscar Williamson was the next proprietor. He got in trouble in April 1930 when the labour department charged him with not paying proper minimum wage to six women who worked there. He plead guilty and spent eight days in jail until he came up with the money to compinsate them.

July 27, 1932, Winnipeg Tribune

Modern Electric lunch then carried on for many years under Chinese ownership.

Sam Wong took over the lease in late 1930, followed by Wing Kong in 1932.

Kong made the papers in July 1932 after the café was raided by the morals squad as part of a slot machine crackdown. Slots were not illegal as long as they were just for fun and no money could be won. Kong added blank slugs to his machine's coin cache and when the machine "paid out", customers could - with a wink - cash in the slugs in for cigarettes. Undercover police saw the machine in action and charged Kong who received a hefty $200 fine.

Russell Quong of 222 Smith Street took over the business in late 1934 and changed its name to "Winnipeg Electric Lunch". He ran it along with Jimmy Mah into the mid-1940s.

March 3, 1944, Winnipeg Tribune

Tragedy struck in March 1944 when Frank McEwan, the building’s caretaker, was burned to death in the basement of Winnipeg Electric Lunch.

A regular breakfast customer arrived at 6:15 a.m. and was waiting for the café to open. He saw smoke coming from the basement and ran to the side entrance to notify Russell Quong who was busy in the kitchen setting up.

Mr. Morgan, the customer, groped his way down to the basement and found McEwan badly burned and sprawled on his back in front of the furnace. An ambulance was called but the man died en route to the hospital. It was thought that he was tending the furnace when its doors blew open and his clothes caught fire.

Winnipeg Electric Lunch appears to have lasted for just another year. After that, Quong moved on to run the Dominion Cafe at 43 McKenzie Street at Jarvis Avenue. It is unclear what happened to Mah as he disappeared from local street directories.

The business was was re-branded the Tourist Café by new proprietor Louis Chatelain in late 1945 and the Electric Lunch name disappeared from the Fortune Block for the next 75 years.

August 13, 1925, Winnipeg Tribune

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