A Life's Story
September 16, 2023
Norm Van Elslander was just like the Gondola Pizza chain he started
By: Chris Rutkowski
Like his pizza, Norm Van Elslander was “incomparable.”
“He had an amazing zest for life,” says his son Todd, who describes his father as being not only a mentor but “a pillar in my foundation.”
Norm Van Elslander is best known in Winnipeg as a restaurant owner whose unique marketing style and legacy continues to attract customers. He started with a Chicken Delight franchise, but in the 1960s wanted to go in his own direction and created what became one of Manitoba’s most recognizable chains: Gondola Pizza. His flagship store at Pembina Highway and Oakenwald is still going strong and there are 16 other locations in Manitoba, Ontario, and even in Nunavut.
After the Gondola chain’s success, Van Elslander sold the business and went in a different direction. He opened a Mr. Mustard hot dog venue further down Pembina, at Dalhousie. Reputed to have the best “dogs” in town, it too did well but was also sold when he returned to Gondola Pizza to assist in its revitalization. The persistence of Gondola’s catchphrase — “incomparable” — is testament to his genius.
Despite the family’s immersion in the food service industry, Todd says he and his siblings weren’t initially involved in restaurant operations.
“At an early age, my mom did her best to make sure that we were not really involved or caught up in the business. She tried very hard to let us be kids and tried to separate the two worlds.”
That proved to be a challenge since running a restaurant meant many long days and nights, and sacrifices were made that affected the work/life balance.
“Most times, personal and family time gave way to the demands of the business,” Todd recalls. “In the early years, we often did not see our dad until early evening, and the family dinner was typically served between 7 and 8 p.m., entirely dependant on when dad would be available.”
His father had to miss Christmas concerts, children’s sporting events, and spending family time at the family cottage.
Norm’s intense schedule was one reason he shifted to managing commercial properties to have more time with his family.
Todd says, “Either business calls had to be answered or mom and dad were talking business at the dinner table. We kids learned to ignore their discussions and try to have as normal dinner as possible.”
Nevertheless, Norm Van Elslander was determined to spend quality time with his family, and he made sure he was part of their lives. He shared many passions with his wife Peggy, including cooking and fine dining, going to the cabin at Twin Lakes and vacationing in B.C., Hawaii and Palm Springs.
Todd remembers one trip in particular when his father took the family to New Orleans as a “bucket list” destination. While there, his dad talked his way onto the set of the Animal Planet TV show Pitbulls and Parolees, and they all watched from behind the camera as an episode was filmed.
“It was fun and created a special memory for us,” Todd says fondly.
His mother died in 2022, only months before her husband, after 59 years of marriage. She had worked tirelessly alongside Norm and helped operate their unique venue, the Medicine Rock Cafe in Headingley, as well as managing their commercial properties. She managed the bookkeeping of the businesses but also supported him operationally by working alongside Norm in kitchens and dining rooms.
Norm’s family and friends say he appreciated entrepreneurs who created quality products and served their clientele well, so he supported them by sending business their way. He maintained that a person who provides a superior product or service deserves to be paid promptly and in full.
The respect he earned through his financial dealings was also mutual with those who responded in kind. Real estate agent Dave Bergman posted a tribute after Norm’s death, noting their friendship followed loyal service and fair negotiations.
Darren Ingleson is a locksmith who worked for the Van Elslander family for decades. In his own tribute, he noted: “You knew exactly where you stood with (Norm) and he did not suffer fools kindly.”
Todd believes his father instilled in him a strong drive to succeed but also a determination to do his best while being an example to others.
“My father conveyed personality traits not with words but with the way he conducted his life. He was loyal to family, friends, and business contacts. He went out of his way to help any way he could, and if he could not help directly, he would find someone who could. You could call on him at anytime and was always there to rely on.”
One person who knew of Norm’s generosity firsthand is Dale Ostrom, a real estate businessman who now lives in San Diego.
“Norm was my best friend,” he says proudly.
Ostrom explains that he met Norm 60 years ago, when he was managing a Chinese restaurant in Winnipeg long before the Gondola days.
“He was a hard-working man,” Ostrom notes. “I was in the printing business and I used to do some work for Norm. We talked about what we really wanted to do instead of what we were doing at the time. We were both so darned poor, and we wanted to figure out what we would do with our lives.”
“Norm had grandiose ideas,” he continues. “I learned a lot from him. He was honest, and never tried to do anything improper because he had integrity, and he never let me down.”
Following an education in architecture, Todd is now a project manager for the government, and attributes his interest in architecture to his father.
“He was always so creative and was keen on buildings. In my teenage years he started renovating and developing commercial properties. Often, he would take me with him to check on the progress of construction. From that point on I felt the bug to learn more about the built environment and construction.”
Of course, the other thing that Todd inherited from his father was his love of cooking and preparing food.
“Dad was famous for making soups, caesar salad, and cheese toast. His favourite recipes included a family favourite, dumpling soup, which he would frequently make and then share it with friends. His best dish was his smoked salmon, which was a frequent menu item at Sunday brunches at the Medicine Rock Café.”
Despite his drive and determination, Norm did not pressure his children into joining him in his efforts.
“Dad always encouraged my sisters and I to pursue our own interests whether or not those pursuits coincided with his passion. He always delighted when one of us took interest in his passion, but it was never forced,” Todd says.
Norm’s family and friends remember him as someone who gave his best to anything he pursued, putting his heart and soul into whatever task or activity he was doing.
“His energy was contagious, and it encouraged us all,” Todd says.
Norm died on Feb. 3, leaving a legacy of memorable and popular restaurants which many Canadians enjoy to this day.