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BernsteinsBy BERNIE BELLAN
Bernstein’s Deli has been a south end landmark since 1985. With founding owner Marla Bernstein running things by herself for years, Bernstein’s had become a very popular daytime restaurant and grocery, but it was when oldest son Aaron rejoined the enterprise in 2012 that Bernstein’s took a whole new leap forward.


It was under Aaron’s supervision that the decision was made to have Bernstein’s open late every night of the week – except Sunday – till 8 Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and till 10 Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
At the time that Aaron, who is now 35, made the decision to come back to the family business – and to leave what was a relatively good position as an engineer with local aerospace firm Emnteq, Bernstein’s had already been a popular south end destination for years. But Aaron’s managerial expertise led to major improvements in efficiencies at Bernstein’s – from the streamlined check-out system, to faster delivery of food to tables (“Still lots of room for improvement”,  he adds, but drastically better than it had been).
Just recently, middle brother Jason, who is 32, also made the decision to rejoin the family business, moving back to Winnipeg from Toronto, where he had been working in institutional asset management.
Recently, I sat down with both brothers and asked them what it was like to have switched gears so completely – and somewhat unexpectedly, to rejoin a business in which they had grown up, along with their younger brother Steven, who is 29. (Steven is not involved in the business)
I asked them whether they both grew up immersed in cooking culture, what with Bernstein’s having been around for so long.
“We grew up around it,” Jason answered. “All three of us worked here after school and on weekends, including  Steven (who is now working as a CPA).”
It turns out that both Aaron and Jason had strong connections to Montreal – Aaron having earned his engineering degree there before moving back to Winnipeg, and Jason having worked as a jazz pianist and music teacher there.
Following high school Jason went to Brandon University, where he completed a degree in music. Upon graduation, he moved to Montreal and would likely have remained a musician except for an issue that developed, when he started to experience chronic tendonitis in both arms.
“I had to keep taking long breaks from playing,” Jason explained. “That business is risky enough when you’re perfectly healthy”.  In 2012, he moved to Toronto and made a complete career switch, becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst.
“It’s a four-year program,” he said. “One of the benefits is you can work while you’re doing it.”
“I got an internship job as a research consultant for a hedge fund consultant fund in Toronto”, Jason noted. From there he was “hired by another hedge fund to do their compliance, marketing, business development - a lot of statistical analysis,” he added.
It was a “small hedge fund,” Jason said – just “two managers” running it, but “it did well,” he added.  “The portfolio managers taught me to focus my energy on areas where I could actually see results. They didn’t believe in competing with the big banks; we didn’t compete with national chains. We did our own thing...It grew from $30 million when I started to about $55 million when I left.”
“They ended up merging with a slightly larger hedge fund. I was looking to change things up a bit – not quite as much as I ended changing things up,” he wryly noted.
Jason’s job description was changed somewhat with the merger and he explained that since he had already been talking with his brother Aaron about the possibility of coming back into the family business, that prospect became increasingly attractive.
“Aaron and I had been talking about how insanely busy the business deli had become – mostly about the parts of the business that were thriving, but could thrive even more,” Jason noted.
One of the decisions Aaron made when he came back into the business in November 2012 was to cut down the seating capacity in the restaurant portion of the deli from 78 to 66, to allow for faster service, provide more separation between the dining room and grocery, and allow more room for the grocery section. He also added a liquor license two years ago which, he suggested, while not a huge money-maker for Bernstein’s, does give customers one more option – something that is increasingly popular on Winnipeg Jets game nights, when the deli stays open late and shows the games on their several wide-screen TVs.
Talking about Jets games – later in the interview, when I asked the brothers whether there was anything new on the restaurant menu, Jason responded, “We’re working on a snack menu to have during Jets games” – things like wings, hummus and pita. Aaron added that they’re trying to create a pub-like atmosphere during those games. “Right now we’re doing something special with Fort Garry (Brewing Company) where we’re offering $4.25 (taxes in) beers during games. You’re not going to find a better deal, I think.”
What have also proven very popular are the new burgers Bernstein’s has been creating for “Le Burger Week” – something that began five years ago across Canada and which caught on primarily through being talked up on social media.
During the first week of September – when restaurants throughout Winnipeg competed to see which one would be voted as having the best burger, Bernstein’s sold a phenomenal 1200 burgers in only five days! (The contest ran a full seven days.) The burger that Bernstein’s developed for that event was a one-off creation, which Jason said actually cost more to make than any other menu item and was sold at a  very low margin. Still – it helped to attract a part of the population that not might not have been familiar with Bernstein’s to that point.
What Bernstein’s also tries to do, Jason noted, is help raise the profile of local suppliers. For instance, just a few weeks ago they had lunch with representatives from Bothwell Cheese to discuss ways to help promote their cheeses (which are kosher, by the way, as are a good many of the other products sold in Bernstein’s grocery section).
“We’re probably near the top sellers of Gunn’s products,” Jason suggested - as an example of another local supplier that Bernstein’s helps to promote. “If there’s another business that we are happy to partner with, why would we try to reinvent the wheel? These are our neighbors, and they’ve spend considerable energy developing great products”.
But the “biggest area of expansion in the grocery section,” he suggested, is in the “area of foods that meet diverse dietary needs, like gluten-free, things that are vegan, certified nut-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, or organic.”
“Our job isn’t to tell you what or how you should eat, it’s to make sure everyone has something good to eat,” Jason said.
Something that Aaron said though that came as quite a surprise to me was when he suggested that many residents of River Heights are not aware of Bernstein’s existence.
“We got a sign three times the size of our old sign on the pylon on the street last summer,” he said. “It’s the second biggest sign on the pylon – right below the Royal Bank sign. You can’t drive down Corydon without noticing it,” Aaron added.
“What about ordering foods for the Jewish holidays?” I wondered. “You’re doing a much bigger business than you used to.”
Jason responded: “My estimate – and this is very rough math, but I figure we probably put food in the mouths of about 15% of Jews in Winnipeg – for Rosh Hashanah.” (Here is how Jason arrived at that figure: “Most people who host a Rosh Hashanah dinner probably have about 15 people over. We had about 120 orders.” That would translate into feeding approximately 1800 people.
I asked the brothers whether they’re having fun doing what they’re doing, especially since they both made such radical departures from what they had been doing previously.
“It’s very fun,” answered Jason.
“We may not always be smiling, but we’re usually enjoying ourselves,” added Aaron.
I wondered which was more challenging – working in an engineering firm, as Aaron did, and working in a hedge fund, as Jason did, or working at Bernstein’s?
“I’d say this is a lot faster paced,” Jason suggested.
“If you came in the morning” (to the engineering firm where he worked), Aaron noted, “with three things you thought you could accomplish, you were lucky to get one of them done.”
And what about their mother (Marla), I wondered? Has she been able to reduce what had been an extremely heavy work load until Aaron came back into the business?
“She’s usually here at least from 10-4,” Aaron answered. “For her, it’s mostly about the deli counter, soup freezer and meals of condolence. For us, it’s more about having the right staff, having people trained, having your orders from suppliers.”
“It’s about the right priorities too,” Jason added. “If we improve how we take care of our existing  guests first, we will continue to grow. You can’t have servers ignoring the guests, especially when they’re hungry.”
“But this place is a madhouse around noon,” I suggested. (On the other hand, as many commentators on social media have noted: The fact that Bernstein’s is so extremely busy around noon is just one more indication how good the food is.)
Jason offered this little tidbit of information to give a clue as to just how popular Bernstein’s is: “Our estimate is we sold 40,000 litres of soup last year.”
I wondered if we could offer an apt comparison so that people could more readily picture that amount of soup. “Would that be enough soup to go half way around the world,” I asked – “if you stretched the noodles out?”
How about this, I said: “You could have filled every pot hole in Winnipeg with your soup. How about putting that on your sign on Corydon Avenue?”*
When it comes to marketing – I have endless ideas, but I think the Bernstein brothers are better off not to accept them. If you’ve been following their behind-the-scenes Instagram stories, you’ll agree: They’re doing just fine on their own.

*After I had written this article, the brothers came up with a couple more ideas for soup analogies:
“If you line-up 40,000 litres of our frozen soups in deli tubs, it would take you all the way to Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, with enough left over to circle the block looking for parking.”
OR
“If you line-up 40,000 litres of our frozen soups in deli tubs, it would take you all the way from the first hole to the 18th, including going in and out of the woods a couple times.”

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