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December 12, 2023
If you grew up in Montreal’s Mile End, then it’s likely that the name Wilensky’s Light Lunch already means something to you. Whether you know the spot for its charming, mint-green doors on the corner of Fairmount and Clark, or for the always welcoming and laid-back demeanor of the family-run business, Wilensky’s has been a staple in the borough since 1932. In fact, walking into Wilensky’s is like stepping back in time: the old-fashioned soda fountain is still there, serving up home-made cherry-cola, root beer, milkshakes, and nostalgia. Of course, no stop at Wilensky’s is complete without ordering the “Wilensky’s Special,” the famed all-beef salami and baloney sandwich invented by Moe Wilensky.
“The sandwich has been a staple in our restaurant since the 1930s,” says Sharon Wilensky. “Our customers come back for them again and again.”
Many regulars still remember Moe, along with his wife Ruth. The couple had five children, and few people outside the family knew that their son, Bernard, was born with a congenital heart defect. Bernard was treated by various heart specialists across Montreal and spent the last few weeks of his life under the care of Dr. Nadia Giannetti, Medical Director of the MUHC’s Heart Failure and Heart Transplant Centre. After his passing, the Wilensky family set up “The Bernard Wilensky Memorial Fund” at the MUHC Foundation to honour Bernard and offer hope to those born with the kind of heart defect he had.
Today, the diner is run by Sharon and Asher Wilensky, along with Asher’s daughter Alisa, and long-time employees Scott and Paul. They still sell dozens of Wilensky Specials each day, a menu item that came about by accident.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” recalls Sharon. “The original Wilensky’s was a cigar store and barbershop located on Fairmount and St. Urbain. And in 1932, my dad bought a grill and started selling hot dogs to make more money during the Depression. At the same time my grandfather, Harry, was giving haircuts at the back of the shop.”
One day, Moe was eating a salami and baloney sandwich on his lunch break, and a customer came in and asked if he could have one just like it. Suddenly, other customers started coming in and asking for the same thing, which is how it got coined the “Wilensky Special.”
“We didn’t have a meeting to decide on that name,” Sharon laughs. “The customers picked it for us.” The customer-first mentality is what drives Wilensky’s to this very day: they believe in fast, friendly service, and they don’t accept tips.
“My father and grandfather didn’t like the idea of anyone leaving more money and thinking they were getting better service,” explains Sharon. When customers started leaving tips anyway, the family started collecting and donating them to different charitable organizations, including the MUHC Foundation.
“We’re especially proud to donate to heart research at the MUHC because it’s very personal to us,” says Sharon. “We want to inspire hope in those born with heart disease and help them live a longer life than my brother did by investing in lifesaving treatments.”
Bernard’s heart defect was discovered at birth, and he had a stent placement at 5 years old, which enabled better blood flow to the heart. At 16, Bernard had his first open-heart surgery, thanks to the invention of the heart-lung machine.
“He always had these big scars on his chest, they were really a part of him,” says Sharon, “but he went on to live a mostly normal life. He loved to play hockey, and he even drove across Canada to Alaska and brought back all these stuffed animals. I was 10 years old, and my big brother brought me all these toys that I liked to keep all over my room,” reminisces Sharon.
“He was always very thoughtful. When my kids were born, it’s like he was in a competition with my mom over who would buy them the most toys.”
In his 30s, Bernard met Myra, whom he later married and shared a home with in Saint-Lazare. They adopted a number of rescue dogs and taught them how to sled, in addition to the many cats, fish, and birds they happily cared for. They lived a very active, happy life, and much of that is owed to the very attentive cardiologists who cared for Bernard over his lifetime.
Eventually Bernard’s health did begin to deteriorate, and the entire family was heartbroken when he passed away at 53.
“I understand that he lived rather long for the condition that he had, considering that he had open heart-surgery at only 16. What’s incredible is that now they can do it on newborns,” says Sharon.
Advancements in cardiology care have helped people with conditions like Bernard’s live longer and healthier lives. These breakthroughs are made possible thanks to generous contributions by donors who support medical research, empowering health care professionals to deliver lifesaving care.
Since 2013, the Mile End diner has donated almost $17,000 to the Heart Failure and Heart Transplant Centre at the MUHC, helping streamline advances in cardiac care to prevent other families from suffering through a similar loss. While the MUHC Foundation extends their deepest gratitude to the Wilenskys, the family remains humble and insists that the donations are a gift from their customers.
“It was an obvious choice,” says Sharon, “the science is advancing thanks to experts like Dr. Giannetti. It’s also very much in the spirit of Wilensky’s to give back to our community, and to treat everyone with kindness. We believe in the power of collective giving, and it brings us great comfort to know that we’re helping fund the future of heart health.”
The MUHC Foundation is thankful to Wilensky's Light Lunch and its customers for their long-time partnership and for helping to advance patient care and improve patient outcomes for heart patients at the MUHC.
If you want to make a difference this holiday season, consider donating to the MUHC Foundation’s For Every Heart campaign in support of cardiac research and care. Your support will help patients like Bernard live longer, healthier lives, and enable lifesaving breakthroughs in cardiology. To learn more and to donate, visit https://muhcfoundation.com/works/for-every-heart