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Earl Barish



By Scott Taylor, posted December 8, 2010

[This article was originally published in Senior Scope is being reprinted with permission]

There are people who will say Earl Barish can be hard to work for. There are others who will suggest he micromanages everything he touches. Even more say he’s a demanding taskmaster.

And yet, even those who criticize Barish will not even mildly suggest that he’s a bad guy. In fact, people who might not agree with everything he does, will always add the following to everything they say: “Earl Barish is honest, forthright and has a huge heart. I might not agree with everything, but I like and respect Earl Barish.”

Barish just happens to be the man who saved a Manitoba icon. And while he’ll never admit it -- and will always credit others for their efforts -- the reality is this: Salisbury House Restaurants and the Salisbury House brand, would not exist today if it were not for Earl Joel Barish. There is no argument. Against all financial odds, he single-handedly saved a piece of Manitoba history.

And at age 63, he came out of retirement to do it.

“Not only did I start at 63, I thought I knew a lot about business, but when I got into this I really had no idea,” Barish said, as he enjoyed breakfast last month at the Sals on the Provencher Bridge. “This experience was and still is new to me. This is what I tell seniors groups when I speak to them. It’s been four years, I’m 67 now, and I learn something new every day.

“No matter what happens in your life, you never stop learning, you never stop realizing that you can learn a lot of new and interesting things. This will always be my message to people: If you think that you have nothing more to offer society, think again. This experience has taught me that you can always learn and you can always contribute.”

It just seems that Earl Barish has always been a success. He is, after all, the man who made Dickie Dee Ice Cream a staple of summertime fun right across Western Canada.

But contrary to popular belief he’s not the founder of Dickie Dee. Fact is, when he was 14-years-old, he drove a Dickie Dee Bicycle all over East Kildonan and North Kildonan, 11 hours a day to make the enormous wage of $12 a day back in 1957.

“Back then, Dickie Dee was owned by Sid Glow, magician Brian Glow’s father,” Barish explained. “In 1957, Frankie Winkler and I went virtually next door and asked Mr. Glow for a bike. He had eight Dickie Dee bikes and Frankie and I got one each.

“I worked 11 hours a day and sold 600 units. That was $60. I got a 20 per cent commission and I can tell you, as a 14-year-old in 1957, $12 a day was a helluva lot of money.”

Earl’s father, Jack, was in the cattle business, but by 1958, he wasn’t doing very well. It was a bad year in the cattle market and Jack noticed that his youngest son was earning a lot of money for himself.  When Earl suggested to his father that the family buy the business, his father agreed and did so.

However, by the time Jack bought the company, things had changed. Earl had finished high school at 15, started university at 16 and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from the U of M at 19. 

For the next seven years, he worked in the management end of Winnipeg’s two major department stores, The Bay and Eaton’s. That story is probably worth a book in itself, but suffice it to say that by 1970, Jack wanted Earl back in the Ice Cream business. And Earl took to it like a cat to a ball of yarn.

With his brother Sid, the Barish family turned Dickie Dee into a huge national success (the subject of yet another book, no doubt), and by the mid-1990s, Earl had sold the business and was in a position to enjoy life.

He dabbled as owner of the Winnipeg Cyclone professional basketball team – if you can call six years of hands-on ownership “dabbling” – but by 2000, he and wife Cheryl were ready to travel the world. Sure, he was still determined to invest his money in what seemed like sound Manitoba businesses, but for the most part, he was in his late 50s and he was ready to enjoy life.

Still, in 2001, he bought a share of what appeared to be a thriving Manitoba operation, Salisbury House, a 70 year old Winnipeg-based restaurant chain that had been sold to a company in Quebec.  Looking for investors, businessmen Costas Ataliotis and David Wolinsky, found Earl Barish, who bought 20% of the Salisbury House brand and became what Earl called, “a silent investor”.  By late 2005, it had become apparent that Salisbury House was in financial difficulty.  “I decided to become a silent investor in 2001 because I was part of a group that felt it was bringing Sals back to Manitoba,” Barish said. “But we got caught in a financial mess.”

“In February 2006, I was in the middle of an extended holiday with my wife Cheryl when I got a call while I was on the deck of the pool in Las Vegas. It was Rob McMahon, the receiver from Ernst & Young. He said, ‘Salisbury House will go under unless you come back and take over just to keep the company carrying on?’ I was shocked. Not only was I a silent investor, but I was getting little or no information on how the money was being spent. I had no idea it was in such a mess.

“I had 20 per cent of the company. It fell to me. So after my astute (he laughs) analysis, I made an emotional decision. Sals had always been a wonderful company. It was founded in 1931. It was an iconic brand of this province. So I decided to try and get Salisbury House back on track. I was 63-years-old, I would have lost $450,000 on the company and while that’s a lot of money, it would not have affected my lifestyle.  I didn’t have to do it, but I felt it was important. I watched Eaton’s go down and I couldn’t let that happen to Sals. So on April 19, 2006, I accepted the position as President and CEO of Salisbury House.”

Little did he know the extent of the mess. The company was $1 million in debt. It also owed $350,000 in outstanding holiday pay to its employees. The company had so many debts, newspapers wouldn’t accept its advertising. And it had no line of credit.

“I learned quickly what I had to do,” he said.  “I needed to sign a forbearance agreement. We paid a lot of money to wipe out much of the old debt to the bank, but while our line of credit was $600,000, it was full. So we had to seek protection under the bankruptcy act and let me tell you, it was very difficult to sign that document. We were only allowed to pay 10 cents on the dollar or a minimum of $300 to our creditors. It hurt many Winnipeg business people and for me it was a very tough decision.”

Eventually Barish got through the financial crisis, but not before the provincial government almost shut down the business and put 600 Manitobans out of work for a measly $51,000 in PST and outstanding hydro bills (and there is the subject for another book).

Of course, the financial crisis wasn’t solved without some heartbreak. He shut down the unprofitable St. Vital restaurant when the lease came up for renewal. Headingley, a huge restaurant with a bar (“What were we doing in the bar business?” Barish asked), had been an 8,000-square foot albatross that Barish knew he had to close. And the restaurant at Portage and Carlton was shut down even after  Sals was allowed to pay no rent. “It still wasn’t profitable,” said Barish.

But losing three restaurants was hardly the end of the world. With the financial monster tamed, Barish slowly started making Sals profitable again. He bid successfully for the food service contracts at three city-owned golf courses – Windsor Park, Kildonan, and Harbour View. He has outlets at Canwest Park(Goldeyes) and Canad Inns Stadium (Bombers) and at Seven Oaks Hospital and Health Science Centre. And this summer the SalsMobile will debut at the Red River Ex, outside the Bomber Games and at numerous festivals and celebrations throughout the province.  In October a new Sals location will open at the new James Richardson Airport.

“On June 1, we bought back three buildings that had been sold by the previous ownership as part of a major multi-million dollar purchase.” Barish said proudly.  “One of these locations houses our Commissary which is central to our business.  It is back in good hands.” 

We also bought the former Longhorn Steakhouse on Leila Avenue and a brand new Salisbury House opened approximately six weeks ago on October 21 at 787 Leila Avenue to rave reviews.  It  also includes our Head Office at the back of the new restaurant.  And we have plans for a new restaurant at Pembina and Stafford. The future looks bright.”

Not all business stories in Manitoba have a happy ending, but in the case of Salisbury House, a senior citizen with a big heart and a hands-on management style has turned an icon that was on life-support into a thriving re-birth with perhaps the brightest prospects in its near-80-year history.

“We were able to take a company in financial distress and turn it into a vibrant, active, iconic part of the Winnipeg community,” said Barish. “It’s a restaurant chain that is unique to Manitoba and it’s positioned where it should be, a company utilized by two million customers per year.

“Sals is a happening now and, yes, you could say I’m proud of that.” 

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