February 3, 2015 2:07 pm
Updated: February 3, 2015 8:24 pm

Winnipeg weighs options for Esplanade Riel as Chez Sophie closes

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WINNIPEG — It’s an iconic feature in Winnipeg and city councillors hope something will fill the vacancy left on Esplanade Riel by the departure of Chez Sophie.

The French restaurant announced Monday it will close for good not even two years into its five-year lease.

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“Unfortunately they weren’t able to make a go at it. There have been two restaurants now with two very different business models, Salisbury House and Chez Sophie, and I think we need to get back to the drawing board on this one,” said Matt Allard, councillor for the St. Boniface, the neighbourhood at one end of the bridge.

READ MORE: Chez Sophie on the bridge closes its doors

Chez Sophie took over restaurant in the middle of the bridge in April 2013. Part of the arrangement with the city was to make upgrades to the site in lieu of rent the first year. Rent for the rest of the five-year lease was set at $2,000 a month.

It is unclear what penalties the restaurant owners will have to pay for getting out of the lease more than three years early.

Allard would like to see a request for expressions of interest to find the next tenant.

“I think the appropriate processes at this point is to open it up, saying we’ve got this great, beautiful location immediately beside the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, and let’s see what we can all come up with together,” he said.

READ MORE: French bistro to replace Salisbury House on Winnipeg’s iconic Esplanade Riel

But Norm Gousseau, CEO of St. Boniface economic development agency Entreprises Riel, said the city should offer concessions to the next tenants to make sure the site is successful.

“I don’t think it’s wise to consider this as a 12-months year operation. It should be considered as a seasonal operation and that should be okay,” said Grousseau. “I think we need to look at this as a public amenity and make some concessions in order for this to operate.”

Grousseau said the city should create a “reverse business plan.”

“You prepare a business plan and look at what’s reasonable in terms of what should be paid for rent and taxes,” he said. “I don’t even know how you come up with a number for taxes on that property, because you don’t have the same services, so should it be charged the same way as Provencher Boulevard or Portage or Main or Corydon? I’m not sure about that.”

Allard said the city should look at all options, but he isn’t thrilled with offering significant incentives.

“The city put significant capital investment into the site and I think we need to get best possible use for the site, and if that means finding two partners, then why not put all the options on the table,” he said.

John Orlikow, chair of the city’s property, planning and development committee, said he wants the site to operate all year.

“Personally, I would like to have the highest-value person in there that pays the most taxes, but we will have to see what is viable and sustainable,” said Orlikow, councillor for River Heights.

Salisbury House leased the site for seven years before the city went with Chez Sophie.

Earl Barish, the restaurant’s president and CEO tells Global News the challenges of parking, weather and utilities costs make it impossible to make money at the site.

WATCH: President, CEO of Salisbury House talks about financial challenges of restaurant on Esplanade Riel

He estimates the yearly heating and cooling costs to be around $50,000 at the same time he calls the location wonderful in the summer.

He isn’t ruling out a return to the site.

“There is only one thing I would be prepared to do again and that would be to have a Salisbury House operation on a management contract,” Barish said.

That means the city would absorb the utility costs and any loses.

“That would be the condition I would consider going back but no other,” Barish said, adding he isn’t going to reach out to the city but is willing to have a discussion.

“It’s beautiful and quite frankly I think something has to go in there,” Barish said.

When the city looked at finding a restaurant to go into the site back in 2013 there were only three proposals.

Manitoba’s Restaurant and Foodservices Association says the low number spells trouble.

“When some of the people that are harden, weathered restaurateurs in the city didn’t jump at the opportunity I think that causes some concern,” said Scott Jocelyn, the association’s executive director.

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