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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 Butcher's Daughter doesn't speak to the Farmer's Daughter. For three years they've spent every day in one another's faces, but neither knows what the other looks like.

The Butcher's Daughter is a fine food store and restaurant on the south side of Highway 60, in Huntsville.

The Farmer's Daughter is across the street.

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Food rivalries have gripped eating life since food was first sold. Pillsbury's Dough Boy and his cousin the Jolly Green Giant were such a thorn in the side of the General Mills Corporation that General Mills eventually bought Pillsbury outright. McDonald's vs. Burger King, IHOP vs. Bob Evans, the cheese steak skirmishes in Philadelphia, the hot dog wars in downtown Detroit, the wing war in Buffalo pitting the Anchor Bar against Duff's: these are indigestive legends to anyone with an appetite. And they have nothing on the endless food cart wars in Singapore, where--to cite just one example--the four Koh siblings battle each other for domination of the chicken-rice universe.

But those are fights in heavily populated cities. When the population thins out and the towns get tiny, the way they do across northern Ontario, the fights are to the bitter end.

The Butcher/Farmer fracas is merely the opening fight on the card. (And the tip of the iceberg in the pre-cooked, take-away fine dining experience, the hottest commercial food trend in the country at the moment.) Huntsville is home to another food rivalry, between Randy's Tall Trees Restaurant (where the chef concentrates on food) and Three Guys and a Stove (where the chef has perfected his marketing). There are the raging pizza wars in Sault St. Marie, currently dominated by Aurora's West End (the Soo claims to have more pizzerias per capita than any other place in Canada, as well as the best pizza--I have to say sorry, the Soo is so wrong--with a thicker crust and sweeter tomato sauce); and of course the ancient and ongoing smackdown between the Finnish pancakes at The Hoito and the (identical) Swedish pancakes at the Scandanavian Home Restaurant, across the street from one another in Thunder Bay.

But of the most ferocious head-to-head restaurant rivalry in Ontario, this can be said: the pogo at Larry's is truly awesome.

Larry's and the Riv are the most famous pair of French fry stands in Canada.

They stare defiantly across the street at one another in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, and have done for 25 years. You can smell their boiling oil a quarter of a mile away on the Trans-Canada highway. There are three other chip stands in the neighbourhood, but no one travels from Sudbury to eat their goop.

(Of course you might think this is insane, to have two stands selling the same product right next to one another in a tiny town. But studies of "side-by-side competition" are almost as common as academic explanations as to why fast food exists in the first place. The theory in a nutshell is that people don't make rational choices. Experiment after experiment demonstrates that people shopping for food, given an array of choices, inspect 1.2 items. They make a decision within 12 seconds. If two items costs less than $7, they like the one with the price that ends in an odd number. And so on. In other words, fried-oil lust, all other considerations being equal, is a low-brain thing. So if you are going to sell food in an assembly-line culture, where eating is often as industrialized as food production, you want to have all your customers in the same corral. But I digress.)

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.

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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