Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Esther is good people

As my regular readers will know, in addition to working a full time day job, I also bust my butt a couple nights a week as a server at a local restaurant. I have been at this particular place over 7 1/2 years. I am not the best server in the whole wide world, but as a general rule I'm pretty darn competent.

Except last night.

Seriously, it was one of those nights where it is really good that I'm not a brain surgeon, or the person on the assembly line who was supposed to install brakes on a car. It might as well have been my first day. Heck, I was probably more put together on my first day. I started things off by ringing in the wrong entree for someone (caught it before anyone notices, whew!), forgot to ring in a table's entrees (they were too engrossed in their smartphones to notice) and then I shortchanged myself over $55.

How on earth does someone do that? Damned if I know. Basically it involves a dimwitted server misreading the printout from a gift card and telling the (surprised) patron that not only did their gift card cover their bill but they still had some left on it to boot! It was a random amount left on the gift card and I know from personal gift card use that I often have no idea exactly how much is left on a card, so obviously if my cashier told me it covered my bill, I would presume that it, oh I don't know, covered my bill.

So, not wanting to look like a greedy server I didn't take back the black billfold with the gift card slip inside (it is possible for people to tip using a gift card balance) until after the mother and daughter had left the table. It was when I went to close their bill out in the computer that I realized what a complete and utter bonehead I was. Yup, shorted myself $55. At that point it was almost funny that that was the next blunder in my comedy of errors sort of night. Like, crying funny, but funny nonetheless.

Well, bless that woman's cotton socks if she didn't call back about an hour later wanting to double check that her bill had been fully paid. Obviously the more she thought about it she was able to recall that there was no way that the gift card had covered her entire dinner and left change. So a confused hostess who had answered the phone came up to me wanting to know if there had been some sort of gift card problem at one of my tables earlier (because what kind of idiot server would let someone leave without paying their bill?)

So, thanks to Esther's good conscience (I caught her name when she called) I did not end up short $55; as she had correctly realized it would likely have come out of my pocket. Esther, wherever you are, you're good people. Thank you again.

Hopefully I should be good for a while now, since I committed about an entire year's worth of mistakes in one night!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Median Market Rent

Today the Progressive Conservative leader, Brian Pallister says if HE were premier he would increase the rental allowance of welfare recipeints to 75% of median market rent (MMR). He says that this would be an increase of about $100/month, up to about $385.

First of all, can we have that etched in stone and force him to wear that around his neck? I have a feeling that if he were elected as premier that it wouldn't happen. Secondly, according to the Province, the MMR for a bachelor apartment is $528, meaning that 75% would be $396 (although that is splitting hairs a bit vs. his statement of $385).

I think an important question is why is there this presumption that a single person will be living in a bachelor apartment? According to this report published by CMHC there are 3,612 bachelor apartments in Winnipeg as of fall 2012. There are however 26,401 one bedroom units (page 5, amusingly in a chart called " Number of Private Apartment Units in the Universe") The MMR for a 1 bedroom unit? A whopping $748! Meaning that 75% of that would be a far more reasonable $561. The problem with median rents is that they are exactly that, median. I won't even bother to touch on how many 1 bedroom units must be renting for more than $748.... So while there may well be bachelors out there for less than $528 there are also many that are more. It also means that of the 30,013 suitable-for-single-people units (bachelor/one-bedroom) in Winnipeg only 12% of those are bachelor units.

According to a piece complied by Sarah Cooper for the CCPA, there is a vacancy rate of 1.7% for bachelor units in the Winnipeg area (page 4). That said, according to her chart there are bachelor units renting for up to $799! Can you imagine not even having a door on your bedroom for almost $800 a month?

Now, obviously the amount given to EIA recipients for their housing allowance needs to increase, and it should be a worthwhile increase (since whomever does it is going to pat themselves on the back for it until the end of time) but I also think it's important that someone bring up the fact that there is certainly no way to make sure that bachelor apartments are only rented to people on EIA. I also don't know exactly how many single people on EIA there are in the city of Winnipeg (I took a quick look but couldn't find it, I'm sure it's out there somewhere) but I would hazard a guess that it might be enough to fill all 3,612 units. Of course, not sure how their new $396 is going to help them rent a $799 bachelor apartment (or a $699 one, or a $599 one...)

One last thought to put this in a little bit more perspective. According to the CCPA piece (page 11) a person would need to earn $10.50 an hour, which is more than minimum wage, to be able to afford that same bachelor apartment that someone on EIA is trying to live in. This is using the same formula that the bank used when deciding if you could buy a house - meaning a person shouldn't be spending more than 30% of their income on housing. You want that same single person to rent a 1 bedroom unit instead? Great, they now need to earn $13.94 an hour.

Now, thankfully, I don't have the same trolls here that the papers do, but I can hear them now... "if they don't like it they should get more education and get higher paying jobs" Ah yes, but in that perfect world where everyone attends university, eventually we would have university grads scrubbing toilets and asking if we want fries with that. Is it really fair to say that a person who gets up and goes to work full time shouldn't get to go home to their own place at the end of the day just like everyone else?

I realize I am now comparing people who have jobs to people who don't (those on EIA) but contrary to popular belief (of the trolls) not everyone on EIA wants to be; and if the minimum wage earners can't even techinically afford to be living in one of the 3,612 bachelor apartments without being in core housing need, but they do, where are those with even less supposed to try and live???

*My head just exploded*

Monday, March 11, 2013

Luda's Deli

It's ok to instagram if blogging too right?
I was craving a Reuben sandwich like no tomorrow. As I considered the greasy spoons and burger joints that surround my workplace none were making me salivate. So I did what anyone would do, I googled "Winnipeg Reuben sandwich".

Top amongst the suggested sites was reviews for Luda's Deli here in the North End (at the corner of Aberdeen and Salter). Of course! I literally drive by Luda's every day; funny how we forget about what is right under our noses.

For anyone feeling nostalgic and mourning the loss of Kelekis (which interestingly was just two blocks up, also bordering on Aberdeen Ave) Luda's might help fill that void. While it has not been around as long as Kelekis, although their 25 years is nothing to sneeze at, is sure does have an equally loyal clientele. And Luda's has fantastically pleasant staff (unlike Kelekis where only regulars were treated to a pleasant attitude).

I've been to Luda's before, in my pre-blogging days, so this is my first chance to put pen to paper to really tell people about it. The decor isn't quite as snazzy as some other Winnipeg places but it has a certain homey feeling; it's a little bit like if word got out about your country aunt's cooking and she turned her dining room into a restaurant without ever changing the pine paneling and ivy wallpaper.

Ludas Deli on Urbanspoon
As many of the other Urban Spoon reviewers and bloggers have pointed out, it's the type of place where they really seem to get to know you; heck, even name menu items after you - whoever Wally is he must eat a TON of fries - I only had a half order for $1.75 so I don't dare think of what $4.95 would get! This is also a chance for a North End twofer - Luda's gets their bread from Gunn's Bakery, another North End institution.

Coffee and water are self-serve, which, as someone who has served for years I happen to think it is a huge blessing! Coffee drinkers in particular are a strange breed and trying to figure out when someone might be ready for a refill is akin to predicting winning lottery numbers some days. Two important things to note are that Luda's is cash only and extremely important, they use peanut oil for deep frying. Best not to kill our friends with nut allergies, mental note, not a place to take my friend Joel, or at least make sure he skips the fries...

If you try to come in the morning be prepared to sit with what seems like most of the City of Winnipeg roadworks/maintenance type staff - the logo'd trucks line Salter after 9am. This is a breakfast/early lunch (closed at 1:30pm) sort of place and closed on Sunday. If you come for lunch and they're full (and they might be - I came at 1:00 on a Monday and snagged the last only-just-vacated table) maybe pop down a few blocks south to Salter and Manitoba and head to another North End favourite of mine, White Top.

Oh, and the Reuben? Freaking fantastic. Don't tell my diet about this.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Where to lay your head?

With the closure of the largest (and best located) hostel in Winnipeg last year, I’m left wondering where budget travellers are going to stay this summer.  The loss of the 120 bed facility is nothing to be taken lightly. We are constantly being told how things like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are going to draw people to our city, but what good is it if we can’t offer them a place to stay? Not everyone can afford to (or wants to) stay in a hotel. Hostels are especially perfect for solo travellers, and I personally have stayed in them all over the world. They offer socializing opportunities not found in most hotels, the chance to pay for a bed instead of a whole room and usually have kitchen facilities where you can make a meal or two, saving yourself even a few more dollars.

Right now Winnipeg has only one other "real" hostel, Guest House International, on Maryland St. The Hostelling International (HI) was also located on Maryland before it moved to its now defunct digs downtown. Part of the reason for the move to the larger location is that for years prior to the move both hostels found themselves needing to turn business away in the summer due to lack of space. Now, while it is true that you can generally make reservations for a hostel, what happens for those folks who are on less of a strict itinerary? 

It appears that there is another place that is billing itself as a hostel, the UWinnipeg Downtown Hostel however it has limited availability during the winter months. Now, to be fair, the demand for dorm bed space in Winnipeg is mostly limited to our summer, which is why I think the HI hostel had trouble making ends meet - 120 beds would have been jammed in July and desolate in December. The problem with this UWinnipeg hostel is that the prices for anything less than a month are quite high - $58/night, $37/night if you book for a week and then a very reasonable $20 or so a night if you book for the month.

I'm not quite comparing apples to apples as the UWinnipeg facility offers private rooms but I think the average young (or young-at-heart) traveller is going to much prefer the $29/night dorm bed at Guest House International.

So what are the other options?

Well, potential visitors to Winnipeg could try Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) there are currently 819 Winnipeggers on that site who might be willing to let one or more folks stay with them. If you're unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, it's this in a nutshell: People create a profile telling the world a little about who they are, where they live, what languages they speak and if they have a spare "couch" for a visitor. This couch could be an actual couch, an air mattress on the floor, a tent in the backyard or even a spare bedroom with ensuite! Users set the levels of who/when they might be willing to entertain visitors, for example a female could specify that she's only willing to have female guests, or a person could say they could only host one guest at a time. Users can also set their status to things like "yes, have couch available" or "travelling" and even "not right now (but can hang out)". 

This is my bed. This post was an excellent excuse to show it off
I've not personally used Couchsurfing when visiting somewhere yet, but I have had people come an stay in my spare bedroom. It's a really interesting way to meet new people. Generally, with Couchsurfing the idea is that it's free, although you may want to buy your host a coffee or dinner as the situation warrants.

Another option is AirBnB, which currently has 32 listings available in Winnipeg. AirBnB is a little like turning your spare bedroom into a hotel room. Or even renting out your entire house or apartment. It also might just be an airmattress in the living room. Again, users set the parameters and even their rates. Currently in Winnipeg rates range from $35 to $150 a night. I checked out a few of the cheaper options and it seemed common that the $35 was for one person with an additional $10 charge for extra people (depending on how many sleeping spaces were available).

AirBnB really intrigues me as a concept, and they even offer up to $1,000,000 insurance policy for theft/damage done to the home. My biggest concern when considering to be a host is how it might impact my current homeowner policy? I just haven't found the time to look into it properly yet as a homeowner - but as a potential guest it seems like a great idea!

Both the Couchsurfing and AirBnB have a review system so you can really get a sense before you book for what sort of experience you might be in for. They also offer something a hostel generally doesn't - a chance to interact with a local on a one on one basis.

All I know is Winnipeg is likely to be extremely short on budget accommodation this summer and in a city that is desperate to attract visitors we can't afford to turn people away.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's not my fault

Since I know the readership of my blog although it goes far and wide (Qatar, haven't seen you lately, where you at?) it doesn't have a massive readership so I doubt it was me that ruined it...

Last May I blogged about the Aeroplan Star Challenge and volunteered to take a flight on Virgin's Upper Class. No one has offered me that ticket yet (hint, hint). I did however complete the challenge and received my 16,500 Aeroplan points.

Aeroplan has rolled out the Star Challenge again this year, although they've tweaked it quite a lot in their favour. I spent some time reading their terms and conditions and like much of the Aeroplan reward program it leans towards helping the rich stay rich (the people who benefit the most from Aeroplan perks probably don't even pay for their own tickets yet they, not the person who pays for them, get all the freebies).

Chuck the Channel Cat in Selkirk (thanks Wikipedia)
So this time you can earn up to 25,000 Aeroplan points which is pretty impressive. To put that in perspective that means a ticket to anywhere in continental Canada or the US. However, they wised up a little bit this time and now have a minimum spend required in order to accumulate the stars in the promotion. Last time it was theoretically possible to get a free flight from one province to the next (the value of the points available) for about $40. This time the average person is looking at a minimum spend of about $470.

Broken down to the simplest form the program goes like this: Collect 100 stars to receive your 25,000 points. Chances are if you are an avid Aeroplan collector you have some sort of affiliated Visa card, so that gets you 5 stars right of the bat. You also get 1 star for registering. Great, only 94 to go. You receive 2 stars for every eligible purchase at an online retailer through their eStore, however this time it excludes eBay which was a source of many of my stars last time. You also get two stars for an in-person shop at a storefront retailer. Ones that the average Winnipegger is likely to shop at? Esso, Rexall, Sobeys and Home Hardware (when visiting rural relatives or Chuck the Channel Cat).

There are a bunch of other basically fake opportunities to earn stars with flights and car rentals but they almost all require that you both purchase and complete those during the contest period (March 11 - April 10). No one can afford to fly Air Canada without strategic planning months in advance grabbing sale prices, who are they kidding. Ditto goes for earning points with hotel stays with Aeroplan partners - no booking on a cheaper site (not eligible for Aeroplan normally) nope, you need to book directly with the hotel which almost always costs more. Do you know who might benefit from that? Business travellers who already earn hundreds of thousands of Aeroplan miles a year.

There is one slightly attainable way to earn extra stars, by using your CIBC card at special Aeroplan Bonus restaurants. You will earn one extra star as well as double the Aeroplan points on your transaction. Of course this means you will also spend way more than $470 to collect the 25,000 points. In Winnipeg restaurants include Hermano's, Chamberlyn's, Hu's, Wasabi, Deadfish, Star Grill, Carbone Pizza and Olympia Diner. If you live outside Winnipeg use this website to find restaurants in your area. Maximum of 5 stars through this method.

So since I can't imagine when I might have more money then time, so I expect to put $10 worth of gas into my car every day at Esso starting Monday (hopefully this can cover about 20 of my transactions, although I don't usually go through $200 of gas in a month, maybe I'll have to roadtrip somewhere...). I will also become a regular at Sobey's.

It's basically a promotion that is designed to have people fail which is great for Aeroplan, not great at all for consumers. If they run this promotion again and if it's tweaked to their advantage any further I won't be able to participate so I might as well go for it one last time.