If you would have asked Shak Illmatik just three years ago if he could imagine himself running a restaurant in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, he would have told you that you were crazy. After all, he was living a comfortable life in Manchester (yes, the UK one) with his wife Kiran in 2019. But as fate would have it, they decided to take a vacation to Winnipeg in early 2020 to visit Kiran’s parents, naively assuming that it would be a short-lived trip.
“Just as we were about to head back, COVID exploded and our flight home was cancelled,” Shak explains. And while most of us were discovering new hobbies and creating TikToks during the first quarantine, Shak decided to draft up a plan to open a restaurant in Winnipeg.
On May 1st, 2021, Shak, Kiran and Kiran’s brother Ranvir officially opened the doors to Smokin Aces after a year of careful planning. A restaurant and hookah lounge that doubles as club at night, Smokin Aces offers a global menu that is inspired by Shak’s world travels.
“I’m half-Irish and half-Pakistani, and I’ve visited many places around the world,” he explains. As such, you will find that the uniquely curated menu at Smokin Aces takes your taste buds for a trip around the world with items such as Donairs, pasta, delectable Belgium waffles, and even flavour-packed poutines. In fact, the “Al Pacheezo” poutine won La Poutine Week in 2022 – not a bad feat for a restaurant that had only opened 8 months prior!
So what inspired this well-travelled entrepreneur to settle in Winnipeg during the height of a pandemic? “Winnipeg, particularly the Exchange District, really reminded me of home,” explains Shak. “It’s similar to Manchester in so many ways – from the people, to the buildings, to the independent businesses. I fell right into place here.”Despite Winnipeg feeling like home to Shak, he initially feared that he wouldn’t be able to get anyone in the building when he first opened Smokin Aces. “I didn’t know anyone here.” But to his surprise, Winnipegger’s came flocking to support the restaurant as soon as they were able to. “Everyone is so friendly and supportive of small businesses in this town. It’s by far my favourite thing about this city.”