A camperdown elm shoots through the concrete parking lot and stretches towards a neon sign. Its drooping branches weave around the windows of the restaurant. It occupies at least three potential parking spaces. Trucks have hit it over the years. It lost one side to a backhoe. Dutch Elm disease threatened to kill it. But here it stands, despite it all. It’s a local landmark, much like its neighbour, the Chickenburger.
It’s Friday morning at “the Chick” and I’m sitting with the owner, Tom Innes. We’re perched on stools in the eat-in area, an addition the Inneses built in 1986. The staff buzz around us, busily polishing the jukebox, chrome stools and tables before the crowds arrive. Cleanliness is as important at the Chick as its chicken burgers. “My mom was fanatical about cleanliness,” says Innes as he wipes the perfectly clean table with his hand. “It was the way she was: work, work, work, take a little time off, then back to work.” His mother, Bernice Innes, hasn’t run the Chickenburger for over 30 years. But she still lives in the house behind the restaurant, and you never know when she might drop in.
Through the spotless windows, beyond the elm, we can see the busy corner where the number seven meets the Bedford Highway. The Chick, in its various shapes and forms, has occupied this corner for 65 years. The community has evolved around this intersection; the population has exploded, fast food joints have moved in, and the traffic, well it’s non-stop. Through it all, the Chick has sat here, quietly expanding in its own small ways. Innes rolls up the sleeves of his plaid shirt, wipes the table again and tells me the story:
My mom and Dad bought this place in 1940. It was already a small canteen, called the Shady Side. Their day started at 6:30am. They’d come down and boil up the chickens, pick and chop the meat, simmer it in hot stock, strain it and put it in a hotdog bun. It’s the same recipe as today, and it’s labour intensive. My dad and grandfather were trying to find a way to get more money for it; I think it was 10 cents then, but during the war there was a price freeze on everything. The only way you could increase the price of a product was if it was a different product. My grandfather said why don’t we put it in a hamburger bun and call it a chicken burger? That’s how the chicken burger began, by accident. We should have patented it, but hindsight is 20/20.
When I was a teenager I quit school more times than I can remember. The first time I quit, my dad said, ‘I don’t care if you quit school, but you’re not going to live here and do nothing, and I’m not going to get you a job.’ So I went to work, then back to school, again and again. After high school I went to work at sea for a while, I worked in Ireland, I learned to fly helicopters, I taught skiing. I had a lot of jobs, I had fun. I really loved flying helicopters, and wanted to do that for a living. I had $300, and needed $6,500 to pay for my licence, but my parents wouldn’t have anything to do with that.
So I came to work at the Chickenburger in 1967. I married Paulette, who was also working here, in 1969. At that point we were in business with my parents. It’s always interesting when you have a father and son, family dynamic. We had a great relationship for the most part, but there were times when I wanted to pack it in. I have three siblings, and I was the one that stayed. When you come into a family business I think things are expected of you. You should do a good job; you’ve grown up with it.
I’m sure every family business has their pockets of problems. For us, there were a few. I wanted to buy another cash register and move them over by the counter where we took the orders. My dad said no. Cash registers were too expensive, and if they were moved, people would reach over the counter and just help themselves. The space was inefficient and I wanted to renovate; he thought it worked just fine. I wanted deep fat fryers so we could put fries, onion rings and fish on the menu. He said no, it would be too messy. I wanted a slushy machine; he said we’d never sell any of that. Meanwhile, in 1971 McDonald’s approached us to buy the property. We said no, so they moved in down the street. They had tops on their drinks, wrapped their food in paper, and had an in-eat area for their customers. They were good competition; they made us make some changes.
For almost 10 years Paulette and I ran the business with my parents. For two of those years I worked every night, seven nights a week. I hired another fella to help out, and my dad said, ‘You know the more you cut the cake, the smaller the pieces get.’ I wanted a bigger cake. So I said to him, ‘Why don’t you let us run the place by ourselves for a year. If we fall on our ass, you can say I told you so. If not, we’ll move on.’
My dad died the following winter, in 1977. I was only officially running the place with Paulette for a year and a half before he died. But he was able to see we were doing well. We haven’t looked back.
I don’t like change for the sake of change. I think we’ve been able to make a good living because we more or less stayed the same. We’re the dinosaur of the business. We like to think that our food at its worst is better than the rest of them at their best. It might take a little longer, not much longer, but it tastes better. We use fresh local hamburger; Fisherman’s Market delivers our haddock. Our milkshake ingredients come from Scotsburn’s. We cook two tonnes of chicken from the Valley a week.
For years there was someone every other month wanting to buy the place. It doesn’t happen as much now. But it’s not in the cards anyway. The reality is, as long as we have the people working for us that we do, we’ll stay. Our general manager, Ron Wallace, does a great job. So do our supervisors and the staff. We have a bucket load who’ve been here over 10 years, a lot even over 20 years. You’re only as good as your staff, and we’ve been so fortunate to have a great bunch of people.
The Chickenburger and the camperdown elm have flour-ished over the years, despite backhoes, Dutch Elm disease and multinational corporations for neighbours. Hard work, careful pruning, local suppliers and a loyalty to staff seem to be their recipe for success. And, of course, a mound of simmered chicken in a steamed hamburger bun.