It doesn’t matter whether you’re dining out, cooking at home or ordering delivery — comfort food has a way of creating conversation and bringing people together.
That’s the mantra of Laneil Smith, co-owner of Marion Street Eatery (393 Marion St.) and manager of the Marion Hotel, who, alongside her team, has been serving up the stick-to-your-bones dishes loved by Manitobans since taking over the famed location in 2014.
“We try to make everything on the menu something that people can relate to, or they can bring out a story within their table and their dining experience,” says Smith. “Whether it’s a meatloaf, a chicken pot pie or a chili, I think people within our province have grown up with those foods and they all have a story.”
While it’s true these foods have a special place at the dinner table, Marion Street Eatery has elevated the dishes from their homely roots and become a star of the St. Boniface dining scene. Whether it’s mac and cheese sweetened with honey mustard pretzels, or a spicy chicken wrap with chili lime peanuts and sriracha, there’s enough twists to keep mouths watering and bring locals back for more.
“Our motto is ‘simple food made good,’ and we really strive for that,” says Smith. “I grew up in a home where we ate a lot of meat and potatoes — home-cooked and hearty comforts that were fairly basic, but good food. Sometimes what people are looking for is for us to take something very simple, juice that up with flavour, and make that simple product good.
“So we took some basic comfort foods — foods that you would typically have at your dining room table or your grandma’s dining room table — and knocked it up a couple notches.”
Smith’s family has owned the Marion Hotel for more than 40 years and she had her eyes on the restaurant well before taking over the space seven years ago. (Before that, it had been leased to the owners of a Polish restaurant.) Smith credits her piqued interest with a love of the space — a cozy corner of the hotel’s footprint — as well as a love of food and the relationships that come through that shared experience.
“I was certainly drawn to restaurants,” she says. “I loved the diversity of the different types of foods that you can play around with, I love being able to give people an experience through food. I think so many people connect through food and drink. I think of relationships I’ve created through my past and usually they revolve around the dinner table in some form.”
She also credits her experience at Red River College — where she graduated from the Hospitality and Tourism Management program in 2006 — with turning that passion into a backbone of fundamental skills, as well as the tool belt needed to lead in a high-pressure environment like a restaurant.
“There’s a foundation that’s learned through the College. When I was in school, it was partly about creating skills, but it also built my strength and confidence to improve and excel within the industry. You see that students have that foundation now, that base and the eagerness of wanting to learn more.”
On this, Smith practices what she preaches. Many kitchen and front-of-house staff at Marion Street Eatery are RRC grads, including the restaurant’s current front-end manager Hayley McMurray (Hotel and Restaurant Management, 2014). The relationships Smith built during and after her time at RRC have helped continue a pipeline of graduates into the tourism and restaurant industry.
“I’m still in contact with a lot of my mentors, who are instructors at RRC,” says Smith. “They drove that career path into me and passion for the industry into me. I don’t think you get that from other college experiences; I really truly believe that RRC gave me that foundation, and that the College continues to give students the opportunity to have that same foundation.”
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a challenge to staffing and running a restaurant. Over the past year, Smith has found herself in the centre of one of the province’s hardest-hit industries.
“We’re in an industry that offers a service that thrives on social experiences, building relationships, having community — all of which have had to be put on hold to keep our neighbours safe,” she relates.
A classic optimist, though, she sees that better days are coming when life goes back to normal (or close to it). Part of that stems from Manitobans’ passion for putting local business first and helping local success stories like Marion Street Eatery thrive and make it to the other side of the pandemic.
“We’ve seen over the past year what our community is capable of through the support-local movement,” says Smith. “I’ve seen us work together in order to boost our economy the best we can without depending on tourism. Even sourcing locally, I don’t think it’s a trend, it’s an important step toward sustainable business practices and protecting the neighbours in the community we live in.”
“Granted, we’re at a standstill now, but I know we’ll get it back when this is over. We have so much to offer as a province, as a city. I’m a proud Manitoban, I’m very proud of our industry and I think we’re part of what makes our province great.”
Don’t believe her? Try the mac and cheese.
Profile by John Gaudes (Creative Communications, 2012)
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