a death in the family

“This is history,” an elderly woman laments as she takes one last look around while perched in a corner of the Zellers Family Restaurant at Bayshore Shopping Centre. Reluctantly making her way to the cash to pay for her lunch, she bids farewell to Maria Gomez, the server she has come to know well over the past dozen years.

“I think a lot of the seniors are really going to miss it,” fellow customer Rachelle Tesslar observes as she finishes her Pepsi. “They come in and have breakfast, chit-chat. That lady was really, really upset that this is closing.”

But closing it is, on the heels of the loss, earlier this year, of Sears Carlingwood’s long-standing diner. Zellers itself is, of course, closing its many doors soon. The in-house restaurants, it seems, will not be available for a last supper. Bayshore’s diner will call it a day Saturday, Nov. 3, and Gomez estimates the few remaining menu items will not last the day. It’s an unceremonious exit for a fast-fading institution: the department-store restaurant. When Target takes over selected Zellers stores in the new year, store-run restaurants are not expected to be part of the deal.

“They might have a place where you can get a coffee,” Tesslar had suggested in an attempt to console her really, really upset friend. “Like a Starbucks.”

They might — though don’t count on it — even have a place where one can get a healthy meal made from natural ingredients, as Target recently unveiled at a Chicago location. But that, too, is merely a transplanted restaurant franchise — no more a cozy family restaurant than Walmart’s resident McDonald’s rest-stops.

Consider it a symptom of today’s global-retailer encroachment. Few seem to recognize or lament this end of an era, but it marks a genuine loss. One less survivor from a simpler time.

One only has to observe Gomez flitting from table to table on this last full day of serving food, to appreciate what is being lost. Customers address her by name, greeting her as they walk one last time to their usual tables. Gomez, meanwhile, has brought her camera today and is capturing memories by snapping photos of her regulars. At times, she asks the cook to take an additional shot, of Gomez with her patrons, her friends… her family.

“I love this place. I love this place,” the South American native says as she reflects on “only” 12 years spent serving customers like Tesslar. (She has been with Zellers for 22.) “This is like a family place for me. Customers that come in are like family to me.”

It’s a comment you will not hear at, say, the Ikea restaurant — the last department-store cafe standing, and hardly a cafe in the tradition of Zellers, Sears or Woolworth’s family-dining gathering places. Time was, such stores routinely offered shoppers a place to grab an inexpensive bite. (And let’s not forget that, upon opening its supersized new Ottawa store, Ikea quietly raised food prices by as much as 50 per cent — i.e., those 50-cent hot dogs will now set you back 75 cents. All part of making back the cost of those renovations, one dog at a time.) Here, we see vintage black-and-white checked flooring, blindingly-colourful vinyl benches and a lunch counter populated by vintage stools. If Zellers’ restaurant could be transported to Hintonburg, it would be hipster’s dream. Of course, a “classic burger” with fries would then set you back $20 or so. Here, we’re talking $6.99. And the Albacore tuna cheddar melt with fries or salad? $7.49.

Not that salad is an option today. Nor can one opt for chicken, or sausage. Even Zellers’ trusty hot dogs are long gone. Grilled cheese, though, is still a go. At least, for today. Supplies, Gomez notes, are limited. And everything must go. That extends to the fixtures: your chance to own a classic diner chair for $25, a table for $50, or a four-person booth for a mere $350. Again, hipsters take note. For one more day. Less enticing, perhaps are the items for sale near the cash: choco rich chocolate topping ($4); and, rice pudding mix (also $4, marked down from $6). Regulars are advised not to read the ingredients.

“Myself, my kids, my family. They’ve all come here,” Tesslar says. “Sometimes we just come (to Bayshore) to have lunch. The food is good, and the people are friendly.

“It’s a sad thing for everybody, really — all the customers that have come through here. I’m going to miss it. And that lady (Gomez) is really a nice lady. Miss personality, herself. But that’s what happens. You don’t get that. You go to a big restaurant and you don’t get the friendliness. Or you get it, but it’s not the same atmosphere. This is more family-oriented.”

And so an era ends at Bayshore, as it also ends at the Zellers on St. Laurent Boulevard. For now, Billings Bridge’s Zellers restaurant has been granted a stay. Indeed, Nov. 14 the monthly feature of a “delicious meal followed by an exciting game of bingo” will go ahead as usual. The store, however, is set to close by next March. And with it will go the last of the local department-store family restaurants.

Call it progress.

As for Gomez, our really nice lady admits she is not sure about the future. “I have a trip booked to South America in January,” she says. “When I come back, I’ll start looking for another job.”

She, too, takes a bittersweet look around the place she loves.

“It’s very sad,” she says, “because the workers here, we are like a family. So are the customers. You see, most of the customers that come here, we know them, from years and years. I’ll miss them terribly. I’ll miss all my customers.”

And with that, she returns to them. Menu and camera in hand.

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