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Danika and Joyce, employees of The Riv, a chip stand in Sturgeon Falls, ON (Ian Brown)
Danika and Joyce, employees of The Riv, a chip stand in Sturgeon Falls, ON (Ian Brown)

Sturgeon Falls, Ontario

A food fight to the bitter end Add to ...

The Riv (short for P'tit Riv, which is short for Petit Riviera, the now burnt-down restaurant that preceded it) is orange, larger, and on the west side of the street. Larry's is green, more petite, and on the east side. Larry's poutine has more cheese curds and lighter, less beefy gravy, but his pogo is of such brilliance that it must be mentioned again. A pogo, which the original Larry thought he invented and called a Pronto Pup, is a hot dog on a stick dipped into secret batter, deep fried, and then smeared with mustard. It is a delicious item if consumed under the right circumstances, i.e. if one has not had anything to eat for eleven hours. Larry's unloads 50,000 a summer. The Riv has more picnic tables and therefore a larger cholesterol ingestion area, a wider range of menu offerings (Beaver Bits, don't ask) and claims it is the true home of the famous Falls fries.

Which is not true. Larry's was the chip wagon that first put Sturgeon Falls on the chip stand radar of "travelers" racing across Canada.

Larry's is owned by Colette Brûlé, the daughter of the original Larry, and her husband, also Larry. Heh. Larry the First worked as a cook in his brother's lumber camp, a day into the impenetrable bush from Sturgeon Falls. He had 11 children. "They'd go away for a week and come home for the weekend, and make another one," Colette says. As a result, even with his wife teaching Grade 6, Larry père needed steady cash. "We were a big family, and one day he just said to my Mom, what would you think of opening a chip stand?"

In 1953 he borrowed $350 from his local priest, standard financing in Sturgeon Falls, where 80 percent of the population is French-speaking Catholic. The stand was successful enough that within ten years he owned the corner his chip wagon once occupied. He maximized his margins in standard French-Canadian/Chinese-Canadian/immigrant-Canadian restaurateur fashion by putting his children to work "as soon as you didn't have a diaper."

Colette bought the stand from him in 1989, and in 1991 started selling poutine, now her main seller. Original Larry figured no one in their right mind would buy chips smothered in cheese curds and gravy. To his purist eyes, even ketchup was an adulteration.

Which would have been fine except that Carm Ferlatte and his wife Julienne owned the Petit Riviera Restaurant across the street. It fronted on the highway. "But he saw how busy my dad was. So he said, well, even if I only get the overflow…" So in 1973 he cut a window in the side of the restaurant, right across the street from Larry.

Needless to say Larry and Carm weren't pals. "Oh no, it was fierce competition at that point," Colette says. "He [Carm]tried to control it. He tried to fix prices--'you do your customers, we'll do ours.' No way. It's competition. They would want to put the prices up, but we wouldn't."

In those days a small cone of chips went for 10 cents. Today the same thing needs $2.25. But the dynamic of duelling chip stands hasn't changed. A client walks up: which stand will they patronize? Everyone knows everyone in Sturgeon Falls. "You know who your clients are, and you can watch which of them go across the street as well," Colette says. She is a small trim woman in her late fifties. "They have loyal customers, but then you have your own customers. You will have people who go to them and then to me, or me and then them. Or, your relatives--they go to you." They'd better.

"The business world is competitive." Collette says, sounding very much like a titan of Bay Street. "But the strong survive. Not that I like it, but I have to stand it. It makes you on your toes. You have to please the customer." A lot of restaurant people are the product of families where attention had to be earned.

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