He’s heard all the questions and even seen the faces pressed against the front glass trying to sneak a peek at what’s going on inside during the renovations of the historic Harmony Lunch.
When’s it going to reopen, and will it be the same?
Nick Benninger wants to reassure everyone he’s doing his best to preserve everything from the ambience to the famous pork sliders covered in fried onions that still have regulars salivating over memories of the greasy spoon that closed its doors last October.
“People say, ‘you’re not changing that burger, are you?’” said Benninger, who can’t keep up with all the questions he gets asked about Harmony.
“I’m surprised that people think I would want anything else.
“I want to taste that burger again, and I want the place to stay and the important parts to remain. I just want to change what needed to change to get it through, and I’m not some young whippersnapper tearing out the old.”
The public can try it for themselves this Saturday, July 29, as Harmony Lunch officially opens its doors again nine months to the day that the 86-year-old landmark at 90 King St. N. shut its doors last fall.
It’s been a labour of love for Benninger, a well-known local chef who has done his best to support the local food scene with Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21 and Taco Farm, before he added Marbles restaurant and Harmony Lunch to the stable of restaurants under the Fat Sparrow Group banner.
At Marbles, Benninger had 40 years of history to preserve in the historic old horse shed on William Street, before he added another 86 years of history to his portfolio at Harmony.
And, for those who think he’s coming in to change the winning formula that served Waterloo through the Great Depression and the Second World War — and was the site many of first dates and reunions over the years — they have another think coming.
“I really want to preserve the quality and the legacy here,” said Benninger, a trained chef who has built a following by focusing on local food and simple cuisine for more than a decade-and-a-half. “People can probably believe that I ate a lot of hamburgers here myself.
“I think I’m a pretty genuine person to pull it off, and I have a track record in the uptown, so although I would have been skeptical myself if others tried to do it, people know my food and my style and believe I’ll do it here too.”
Benninger said he wanted to evolve The Harmony Lunch in a good way. No restaurant lasts without embracing some change, and there was a lot of work that had to be done to make sure the well-loved grill makes it to its 100th birthday in 2030.
“We were nervous about improving or evolving it, and wrote certain words down and made sure we never used them because it would sound like some corporate makeover and ruin it,” said Benninger. “But it was obvious that the place needed a kick-start — it was a time capsule before.”
So, even after Hip Developments spent almost $1.5 million to acquire Harmony and the property on which it sits, they also poured in a ton of money to make improvements, nobody will notice, to bring the historical hot spot into this century.
“The running joke is we spent a (boatload) of money to make it look like we did nothing,” said Benninger. “And that was our goal.”
Benninger has focused on bringing back menu items that disappeared over the years because the Marks family, who previously started and operated the business, stayed with the tried and true over the years.
“If they had a piece of equipment break, they just let it stay broken and took that item off that menu,” said Benniger. “It wasn’t about us making a better milkshake, it was about replacing it and offering them again, and there was a lot that needed to happen to make it get through the next 20 years and make it profitable and a viable business.”
Some of the changes regulars will notice include serving draft beer sourced from local microbreweries. There will be TVs to watch the hockey game from bar stools. The countertop has been refurbished but still remains.
“We knew there would be doubters but all we really wanted to do is brighten it up and clean it up,” said Benninger.
“We wanted to get proper washrooms in and get a liquor license again — it just needed that refresh.”
People who have gotten a peek are genuinely surprised they haven’t “ruined the place”, said Benninger with a laugh.
“Although, they say it doesn’t smell the same and that’s because of the fresh paint and cleaning supplies — not the burger and onions on the flat-top — but it will come back too.”
For a lot of people, it will all come down to the taste of the burger, although Benninger couldn’t wrangle the original recipe from the Marks family. It’s the closest thing he remembers to the hamburgers they served there over the years, with a local pork farmer providing the fresh ingredients.
“It’s the closest thing we could get to that original taste,” said Benninger. “The first time I bit into it, all the memories came rushing back.”
Benninger hoped to have Bruce Marks attend the grand reopening this Saturday starting at 11 a.m., but he fell ill recently and is currently hospitalized.
The elder Marks did ask his daughter Cheryl when the new guy was taking over so he could get some rest.
“People wonder if I’m the right guy,” said Benninger.
“I’ve been committed to this core long enough and I’m obviously interested in maintaining it.
“We can’t keep losing stuff like this and we’re doing our best to stick around.”