Ethel's Lounge 114 King Street North Waterloo, Ontario N2J 2X7…
Nick Benninger is satisfied with the way the new Harmony Lunch has been received since it re-opened at the end of July. It’s trite, of course, to say what’s old is new again — or what was old is still partially old, but that is the iconic reality of the Harmony. The old stories about the place precede rational judgement and simply take over any analysis.
A community symbol and meeting place
Decades ago, I played goalie in the rep-system at Waterloo Minor Hockey. The old Waterloo Arena — ancient, though it had one of the best ice surfaces in southwestern Ontario and a big arena feel to it — was a few blocks away. My mom would drop me off at morning practices and head to the Harmony for a coffee before going back to the rink to watch. She tells a story about chatting with the City workers coming in for coffee on a break from clearing snow. That’s the kind of a community symbol the old Harmony was and the battery of memories that it inspires. It’s what I recall when I set foot in the place.
“It’s been more difficult from the sense that there will be some people that we will never win back…” — Nick Benninger
Getting beyond nostalgia
For Benninger and Fat Sparrow, his restaurant group that includes Uptown 21, Taco Farm Co., and Marbles, it was impossible to rely solely on nostalgia: tattered and torn and decrepit doesn’t work. Changes, at some level, need to be made — and not just to meet health and safety codes. It’s like trying to keep old “heritage” buildings around long after they are worth it. Sure, make some nod to their 87-year-old past (the Harmony’s age) and reify that in some sort of gesture with the facade of the structure — but get over it and move on.
That has been what Benninger and his partners have done: they’ve maintained a sense of the past but upgraded and made better (by making new) an old icon. It wasn’t easy, Benninger admits. Not that it was necessarily only hard: it was just complex.
“There was so much to do that it’s hard to say whether it was easy, difficult or fun,” says Benninger, who at virtually the same time was re-building the desultory and faded Marbles that had lost its shine at King and William streets long before. “The Harmony has been difficult from the sense that there will be some people that we will never win back because they had a real emotional attachment to the place. It doesn’t matter how much we try and how close the burger is, they have determined that they don’t like it,” says Benninger who is, you can tell, quite able to accept that fact.
Finding a sweet spot
Such are the vagaries of operating a restaurant and trying to please all of the people all of the time: that’s a mug’s game and just not possible. But I have to say that, in only a couple of visits to Harmony, granted, I have only heard positive comments. In fact, on one visit, a customer approached Benninger while we were talking, proffered his hand and said thank you.
“I was skeptical when I heard about the renovations,” the middle-aged customer said. “But thank you. I like it. You’ve done a good job.”
It’s a comment Benninger hears often when he’s off-site too.
Operationally, Benninger has found a sweet spot, relative to his other restaurants. “It’s been easier in the sense that it’s a relatively simple operation because it is very streamlined. It’s been going well, and I really enjoy running it.” While he wants to make money and offer an excellent product, Benninger acknowledges the Harmony is imbued with an important history, and he respects the legacy.
The right touch — but few right angles
The former owners shared nothing about the slider-burger process with Benninger and even took away the old grill. The floor piece that’s attached to the hood over the new grill is original and is an homage to a couple of generations of the Marks family who stood on the spot, wearing the wood thin. (Such are the vagaries of the line cook.)
Benninger says he ate at the Harmony enough in the past to have a good idea of how to put the classic burger preparation together. “It’s not exactly like it’s a Swiss watch,” he jokes. “It’s a hamburger.” Otherwise, the original menu is about 90 percent gone, but the creaky wooden floors remain as well as the chairs, stools, phone booth and table-top napkin dispensers with well-worn “No Smoking” stickers on them, the latter a definite sign of a past era. A horseshoe in the new logo is at once one of those nods to the past — and a possible harbinger of things to come, according to Benninger.
Getting the building up to code and standards, especially for a liquor license, required quite a bit of logistics, including new restrooms. “It was very expensive and a delicate project too.” The old structure — like the hide-bound customers reluctant to give up the many decades — posed challenges itself: nothing was square for builders to work with, he says. “It was a two-day job for two guys non-stop to frame the new garage door. Every corner in this place is crooked.”
Though tattered and dog-eared, a few old advertising signs on the walls have been resurrected from their burial as the lining inside old closets and storage areas. Benninger says he respects the past of the place — that much is quite obvious — but he’s also pragmatic about what how to run a food operation that is designed to generate an income and support employees, despite any misplaced sense of history.
“Some day, we’ll have to replace the chairs, but they’re good for now,” Benninger says. “We’ll let them break first.”