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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 ...

What Collette won't talk about is what happened when Carm Ferlatte sold the Riv to a local electrician, another Larry. He had a reputation for being ruthlessly competitive. He listed the Riv in the phone book as Larry's Le Ptit Riv. Customers and suppliers confused the two. He lasted between three and five years, no one is certain. He is not missed.

"What I do to people like that is I ignore them," Colette says. "They're not worth the energy."

Ian Brown eats Canada

Larry the Terrible sold the Riv to Jeannot and Lorraine Gervais, whose daughter, Carole Ethier, owns the Riv today with her husband Norm. She too grew up in Sturgeon Falls (her father owned another restaurant), she too was partners with her father in the Riv for years. She even sounds like Colette.

There is some dispute about who first introduced "the char-burger," which both owners talk about as if it were a small child who made good in the city. There is debate about who does more business; Carol claims her suppliers tell her the Riv does (it certainly advertises more). "Oh yeah, you always want the whole thing for yourself," Carole of the Riv says. "But we're both very busy."

"It's a decent living," she says. "But we put in the hard work." They open at 8:30 a.m. and go to 9 p.m., seven days a week, for nearly eight months. One of their busiest times is March break, when the two stands open again for business on the same day, and the local population's pent-up demand for starch and fat busts forth anew. "It's a big two or three weeks there," Carole says. "Oh, yeah, for sure. March Break starting. And college kids coming back. It's like spring's starting." Ah, yes, spring in northern Ontario: the birds, the new shoots of green, the fresh reek of fat searing potatoes!

Between them, the two stands sell a hell of a lot of French fries. The Riv alone buys roughly eighty 50 pound bags of potatoes a week--that's 71 tons of spuds a season. A bag of potatoes can run anywhere from $9 to $17, an average of 22 cents a pound. A small poutine goes for $2.25, a large for $5.75. If you can wring a small poutine from a pound and a half of potatoes--a guess, because neither owner is about to share that detail--that's not a bad business. But the Riv has 15 full and part-time staff, and the minimum wage has increased $2.25, to $10.25 an hour, in the past three years. "For half a million," Colette says of Larry's, "it's yours."

Because it's not an easy business. Carole Ethier has had offers to start Rivs in Sudbury ad North Bay--"and they have lots of chip stands already. But I have kids, family. And it's a lot of work. I would like to sit down with people who know how to duplicate places."

Naturally, some people think both stands are owned by the same person. "Some people have asked us that," Carole says, "do we own the other side. But people don't realize how much work it is." The Riv alone can serve 1000 orders a day between 11 a.m., the morning threshold for human chip and gravy ingestion, and 9 p.m., depending when Larry's closes. That's 100 servings an hour, or nearly two a minute, all day long.

"We've known them a long time," Carole says of Colette and her husband. "We're friends. If we're short, we back each other up. We have to. We face them every day."

It's late now; the sun is going down. I manage to buy the last poutine of the day from both places, and head off to test them. A local girl, no older than 13, is amazed that I am openly buying from both places at once.

"Are you getting something different?" she asks, her eyes agog at my effrontery.

"Yes," I said, "I'm adding a pogo from Larry's."

"Oh, yeah," she says, because it all makes sense now. "Their pogos are good."

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