Vintage Toronto Ads: Burger Chef’s Monstrous Opening

Originally published on Torontoist on October 2, 2012.

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Given the emphasis on monsters in this ad, perhaps a Halloween launch would have been more appropriate? Toronto Star, February 6, 1970.

As the 1960s drew to a close, Canada was ripe for an American fast food invasion. Even if demand for cheap burgers and fries had temporarily peaked, the Great White North offered plenty of territory for chains like McDonald’s and Burger King to expand. Among the invaders was Burger Chef, which seemed to have two ingredients of success: plenty of locations (over 1,000, putting it in second place behind the Golden Arches), and strong corporate backing from General Foods.

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Burger Chef’s first attempt to enter the Toronto market. Don Mills Mirror, May 29, 1963. 

Burger Chef’s origins lay with General Restaurant Equipment, a milkshake machine manufacturer that Burger King approached to build one of its early broilers. Management saw potential in running their own fast food chain and launched Burger Chef in Indianapolis, in 1958. The chain attempted to break into the Toronto market with a Scarborough location on Eglinton Avenue in the early 1960s, but it appears to have vanished by the time new owner General Foods made a new push in early 1969. At that time, local advertising heavyweight McCann-Erickson was hired to promote Burger Chef, whose new locations were described as being “of the neighbourhood type.”

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Toronto Star, February 12, 1970.

Company officials made no pretense that Burger Chef was going to revolutionize the local fast food landscape. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” vice-president C.C. Skinner told the Globe and Mail in 1970. “If there is something that other people can help us with, we will use it.” One possible source of help was the homegrown Harvey’s chain, which had considered the possibility of being taken over by General Foods earlier that year. After General Foods decided Harvey’s hamburgers were not a beautiful thing, Harvey’s management accused the food giant of dealing in bad faith and promptly cancelled a contract to buy General Foods–supplied coffee.

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Toronto Star, June 4, 1970.

After an initial advertising blitz in 1970 (which offered dubiously-named giveaways like “Skin-Pix”), Burger Chef adopted a lower profile. After a large loss, expansion halted the following year. McDonald’s Canada president George Cohon admitted his chain had crippled Burger Chef’s sales. By the end of the 1970s, remaining Canadian Burger Chef locations were being converted into Crock ‘N Block restaurants. Stateside, the chain didn’t last much longer: after its purchase by Canadian tobacco giant Imasco in 1982, most remaining locations were converted into Hardee’s outlets.

Additional material from the February 26, 1969 and August 6, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the October 16, 1970 and May 24, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Bobby Orr’s Pizza Weekend

Originally published on Torontoist on October 4, 2011.

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Don Mills Mirror, October 13, 1971.

If Tim Horton could run a donut shop, why couldn’t Bobby Orr lend his name to a pizzeria?

Orr may have skated into the pizza business to fend off others hoping to utilize his name in the restaurant business. Around the time the first pizzas were delivered in 1970, Orr’s representatives sent lawyers after other restaurateurs hoping to cash in on the Bruins star’s fame, such as two New Hampshire gentlemen who dreamed of opening Bobby Orr’s Eating Place locations throughout the granite state.

Before the first puck dropped for the 1971/72 season, Orr signed a five-year deal with the Bruins that, at $200,000 per season, made him the NHL’s first “million dollar man.” Besides leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory, he picked up the Conn Smythe, Hart, and Norris trophies. We doubt any of that silverware made its way to the pizzerias for a special promotion. (“Buy two pizzas and win a chance to touch Bobby’s latest Norris Trophy!”)

Vintage Ad #1,668: Bobby Orr wants to give you some of his dough

Toronto Star, June 9, 1971.

Known as either Bobby Orr Pizzerias, Bobby Orr’s Pizza Restaurants, or Bobby Orr’s Pizza Parlor, the chain planned to expand across Ontario, but the business endured as well as Orr’s infamously bad knees. An Oshawa newspaper ad hinted at the problem, proclaiming, “Bobby Orr wants to make a comeback,” after, as Star columnist Jeremy Brown put it, “a lapse in quality.” As for the former locations listed in today’s ad, the new one in Willowdale is now a salon/spa, the Keele store is currently a Mr. Sub, and the Cabbagetown branch is a real estate office.

Additional material from the December 17, 1970, and May 21, 1971, editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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1971/72 O-Pee-Chee hockey card.

Whatever name it carried, the chain appears to have come to an end in 1973, when Winnipeg-based owner Champs Food Systems sold the pizzerias to an unnamed buyer for $100,000. As part of the deal, Orr Enterprises withdrew the hockey star’s name from the restaurants.

In his book Power Play, Orr’s agent Alan Eagleson included a paragraph about the pizza business:

Oscar Grubert is a really successful restaurateur of the chain variety. He owns the rights to several of them, all big–Cavanaghs and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Winnipeg, Mother Tucker’s in other places. When his deal for Bobby Orr Pizza Places was launched in the Royal York Hotel, a lot of celebrities, from Pierre Berton to Robert Fulford, were on hand, as well as all the sportswriters. The fanfare was for a new Bobby Orr Pizza Place to open in Oshawa. Oscar set them up and they did well, except Bobby didn’t want to have anything to do with them. He’d say “I never eat this stuff,” that type of thing, and wouldn’t go to an opening. So Oscar finally said, “We might as well get out of that deal.” If Bobby had co-operated he’d be making hundreds of thousands of dollars from that business now, but he just kissed off an association that could have been a long-time money-winner for him.

Or one that Eagleson probably would have benefited more from than Orr. In a 1993 Globe and Mail column on fact-checking, Robert Fulford disputed Eagleson’s account of the pizza chain’s launch night. “It’s nice to be called a celebrity,” Fulford noted, “but I’ve never been in the same room as Bobby Orr and never heard of Orr Pizza Places.”

Vintage Toronto Ads: Try a Little Tenderness

Originally published on Torontoist on April 1, 2007.

Vintage Ad #60 - Winco's Steak N' Burger

Source: Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine, Vol 1 No 17, 1977.

The 1960s and 1970s saw family dining restaurant chains explode across North America. Chains such as Steak n’ Burger took staples of diners and greasy spoons and used cleanliness, low prices and conformity to draw in hungry families.

You have all the components of the old-school low-end steak dinner: a bowl of iceberg lettuce with no fresh-ground pepper or sun-dried tomato vinaigrette in sight, a baked potato with a huge pat of butter; a steak that has never known the words “Angus” or “certified aged”, a toasted supermarket roll that takes up a third of the plate, tomato juice (because a bloody piece of meat deserves a bloody accompaniment) and coffee in a cup a university student’s cupboard or Value Village store would love. Not sure how common strawberry shortcake was at this style of restaurant, but hopefully the sponge cake had some spring left in it.

When this ad appeared, Steak n’ Burger had just been acquired by Cara Operations, who added Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet to its portfolio within a year. The chain gradually faded away, as the market for franchised family dining moved towards bar & grill-style restaurants that didn’t include tomato juice as a side dish.

Can you still find tenderness after a rough rush hour commute at their locations along the subway? Check the current state of these addresses:

173 Bay St – building replaced by the main entrance off Bay to BCE Place. Not quite as historic as the 1885 Bank of Montreal building or other buildings incorporated into the complex.

77 King St E. – address no longer appears to exist. There is a vacant space at 75 which looks large enough to have housed a restaurant, while 79 is home to Uno Spanish Services. (Update 2017: 77 King East houses a beauty salon, while 79 has received heritage designation).

323 Yonge St – building demolished, address looks like it will be buried in the Metropolis development at Dundas St. (Update 2017: after a few name changes, the development is currently known as 10 Dundas East).

772 Yonge St – now the Yonge-Bloor branch of Le Chateau. Do leather jackets count as a connection to this location’s cow by-product past? (Update 2017: site currently under construction for The One tower).

1427 Yonge St – the only one of the subway-accessible locations still serving food, as the Jester Pub. (Update 2017: or, as it’s currently called, the Jester on Yonge).

2287 Yonge St – not a restaurant, but still in the food business as the Yonge-Eglinton branch of Kitchen Stuff Plus. (Update 2017: demolished for condo construction).

240 Bloor St W. – recently demolished to make way for the One Bedford condo tower.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

In some ways, I’m lucky my work doesn’t draw too many comments from the interwebs. With rare exceptions, my articles tend not to stir up too much vitriol, even when dealing with controversial topics. When I do receive comments, they’re often enlightening, adding more details to the story based on readers’ personal experiences with the topic at hand.

Such as this post. Here are some comments left about it over the years.

From Jason Hurlbut, circa 2012:

My dad and his 2 partners founded the Steak n’ Burger and its great to see this old ad. Your facts are mostly correct although there wasn’t a better steak available than what you see in the picture. The beef was actually “aged” although that marketing of same wasn’t needed at the time. Interestingly, Vaunclair Meats which was also owned by Winco Steak n’ Burger was the first purveyor to bring “Certified Black Angus” beef to Canada. The first Steak n’ Burger restaurant (based on the Steak n’ Burger Room in the Brass Rail Tavern in London, Ontario – no not “that” Brass Rail) opened December 1958 and was lined up all the way up Yonge Street and around the corner onto Bloor on opening day. The reason the chain grew to over 50 restaurants was because of the attention to detail for fresh and top quality food while keeping prices low. The dishes you see still exist at our cottage today…. you can’t beat heavy duty functional stuff! Thanks for writing about this and sorry I didn’t see it until my brother found it 5 years later.

From Pat Skinner, circa 2012:

I was the bartender in the Colonel’s Lounge, a separate bar area in the Steak n Burger at 77 King St. E. for 2 years starting in 1975. Clientele consisted of around 20 or so regulars. Every lunch and after work until closing at 10 or 11 p.m. Wally, Karl, Tom, Rodney, Mike, George, Claire, the Whaley brothers, Tex, Carmen, Hugh, Art… would come in and make the place their own. When the door from the street opened all eyes would check out who was entering-strangers could expect stares and silence. This was their club. They were all characters. One of the Whaley brothers would stand at the bar and converse with me, and unbeknownst to me, all the while his pants were on the floor around his ankles. I worked the bar with Melanie and on our birthdays and Christmas we would be taken out for dinner and receive gifts from all the regulars. After closing a bunch of the restaurant staff, bar staff and regulars would head over to Brandy’s for a drink. One Christmas, staff and bar customers pitched in and rented a room at the King Eddy for a Xmas party. In the 2 years I worked there the only newcomer the regulars ever accepted was a guy in his late 20’s, I think his name was Donald. He gave his story as being an orphan and working as a bartender to put himself through school. He rented an apartment or room above the rug store that was next door to the Steak n Burger. He told everyone he was going into the hospital to have a deviated septum fixed. When we next saw him in the bar, he looked tired and had black circles under his eyes. We assumed it was from his nose operation. When we commented on his looks he said the operation had been cancelled as his surgeon was in a car accident. We were embarrassed as we had told him he looked like sh… I left for a 2 week vacation. Upon my return my manager Shelley met me at the door. Donald had been arrested for murder! Turns out he looked like sh.. ’cause that weekend he had picked up some guy in a park, took him home (next door to the Steak n Burger) and supposedly the guy came on to Donald and would not take no for an answer so Donald stabbed him numerous times and stuffed him in his closet. For the next several days people had seen him taking bags of ice up stairs to his room. Turns out Donald kept the guy on ice in his tub, then rented a car, dismembered the body and dumped it across the city in various places. According to Shelley, Donald had confessed to a waitress and one of our bar customers but they did not call police. An old boyfriend that Donald confessed to turned him in to police. Well, we never did cotton to another stranger again. I left to work at an upscale bar with younger clientele after 2 years and continued to bar tend for another 20 years. I NEVER dated a customer. I have shared this cautionary tale with many young restaurant staff that think they look prettier at closing time. I often wonder what happened to Nino, Shelley, Melanie, and all the regulars. It was a great place to work.

From dylanesq, circa 2013:

I was one of the shipper/receivers at the Vaunclair plant on Upjohn Rd in the mid 1970’s. I don’t recall any ‘aging’ going on in the plant but most of the top quality beef came in, probably pre-aged, from Iowa Beef (in the USA) by ‘reefer’ tractor trailer loads. They were packed in boxes with 2×7 bone ribs in each. A crew of mostly Greek Canadians (including one Macedonian refugee called ‘Jimmy’ who sang the most heart wrenching songs from his homeland as he worked around the plant) broke down into roasts for our Rib of Beef restaurants and steaks and burgers (from the trim) for Steak and Burger restaurants. A Newfy, Lindy, was the burger shop foreman and a German Canuck, Eric, ran the plant.

I learned how to throw together the best peasant style lunch from those Greeks. It comprised a can of sardines, several lemon wedges, a ripped off chunk of white bread ( to dunk in the sardine juices), a handful of olives, feta cheese and wedges of tomato !! dessert was always an orange trimmed and peeled with a small pocket knife.

The whole plant system ran like clockwork with deliveries made by our own van and truck. Compared to other drivers, when I went out on runs, I was so fast making deliveries I used to catch a couple of hours at home on Mount Pleasant before getting back.

The last job we did before the end of the day was to load all the boxes of meat into the deep freeze where the fan blown temperature was positively ‘arctic’ … and we had to dress appropriately, i.e. like proverbial Eskimos ! We were highly skilled at tossing 10lb boxes up 25 feet where they stopped in mid air and were taken and stacked on the top pallets. I’ve never been so fit !

Only problem was that, in the summer, when it was in the mid 80’s F, you’d exit the -45 F freezers and climb onto the steamy Don Mills bus and, due to that c 135 degree difference, fall fast asleep !!