The small diner in Kenilworth, Ont., is only a speck along rural highway 6, a rare sanctuary in a rolling country of old farmhouses and slow creeks. Outside, a weathered sign tempts the occasional motorist to stop for family cooking.
There are no traffic lights for kilometres. In a community that prides itself as friendly and safe, the front door to the diner is kept open to the sweltering heat.
The Kenilworth Country Kitchen is halfway up the Butter Tart Trail, a series of 18 bakeries, markets and stores along a 30-kilometre stretch of road. Butter tarts in this region are serious business: Bakeries in the community of 11,500 people sell thousands a week. Tarts fuel gatherings of the local economic council and are the centrepiece of the mayor’s breakfast and other community meetings.
Which is why, when the Township of Wellington North noticed the City of Kawartha Lakes, three hours’ drive to the east, had established a competing Butter Tart Tour earlier this year, the gloves came off. A cease-and-desist letter was sent, words were exchanged, lawsuits contemplated.
“It appeared to me to be the exact same concept as what we are promoting here, just changing a single word,” said April Marshall, head of tourism for Wellington North, about an hour and a half northwest of Toronto.
Speaking in the township’s small council chamber, Ms. Marshall chose her words carefully as she explained her frustration dealing with a region that has seven times more people, an established tourism industry and provincial funding for publicity. “That’s what we are up against, it’s frustrating,” Ms. Marshall said.
Kawartha officials say their new campaign is a way to get more recognition for butter tarts made by 29 bakeries in the Kawarthas. The director of tourism in the Kawarthas says the region’s lawyers do not believe the Butter Tart Tour infringes on the trademark of the Butter Tart Trail.
“We didn’t know there was a Butter Tart Trail,” Karen Theriault said. “Everyone is getting in on the butter tart.”
That explanation doesn’t sit well with the Wellington North township bakers, shop owners and their defender, Ms. Marshall. She is considered by many to be the heart and soul of the trail, having spent two years working with small business owners and revitalizing the brand. News of a visiting reporter was sent by e-mail to shop owners, a sign of the constant grapevine backing the trail.
When she came across the website for the Kawarthas tour in April, Ms. Marshall spoke with the township’s chief administrative officer and local economic committee. Finding unanimous support, she sought a trademark lawyer.
With staff addressing citizens on a first-name basis, Wellington North’s small municipal offices in Kenilworth seem an unlikely place for a cease-and-desist letter to originate, underscoring how seriously butter tarts are taken. By the end of April, the warning was en route to the Kawarthas region.
“The idea was to let them know that we have trademarked this, we’ve spent the money on it and that particular title is ours,” Mayor Raymond Tout said.
Mr. Tout, a first-term mayor who works as a mortgage broker by day, patted his ample belly several times while admitting to a “sweet tooth” and a schedule heavy with tarts and community meetings.
While talking, the mayor has a habit of lapsing back into a sales pitch for his rural community. The population of the township triples in the summer as cottagers and campers take to the area. According to Mr. Tout, people use the opportunity to slow down.
With the exception of manufacturing in the population centres of Arthur and Mount Forest, the township is largely agricultural. It has few draws for tourists, so the cease-and-desist letter was necessary to defend one of the community’s proudest attributes, the mayor says.
“In some areas cupcakes are what everything is about, here it’s butter tarts,” said Jordan Bond, the owner of the restaurant Munro’s on Main in Mount Forest.
Back in the Kenilworth diner, Ronald Burke admitted to eating four of the calorie-packed snacks on most weeks. The tarts are hard to resist. The recipe hasn’t changed in a century; the crust and filling are both slowly mixed by hand.
“I try to avoid butter tarts, but I do fall off the wagon every once in a while,” Mr. Burke said, speaking in a slow drawl.
Lindsay Lingard, who co-owns the diner with her husband Darren, is scurrying with a pen stuck in her bun and a bowl of ice cream for a Mennonite trucker, refilling Mr. Burke’s coffee and carrying plates of burgers and fries. She’s one of the angrier owners along the Butter Tart Trail.
“I don’t think they understand how big of a deal it is here,” Ms. Lingard said.
Selling as many as 500 tarts weekly from her small kitchen, Ms. Lingard says she is in debt to Ms. Marshall for the success of the trail. But the bakery owner echoes one of Ms. Marshall’s main worries – that culinary tourists looking online won’t be able to distinguish between both butter tart excursions.
Ms. Lingard wants the Kawarthas to rename their tour. “Do your own thing,” she says.
Working in the kitchen of the diner, Ms. Lingard’s husband looks down at the faded yellow pages of his butter tart recipe. His recipe is nearly a century old, passed down over generations as the popularity of butter tarts entrenched itself in the area.
While his copy isn’t the original, it was one handwritten in the last few decades; no measurements are listed next to each ingredient. Mr. Lingard is a traditionalist who scorns the use of corn syrup in recipes – his tarts are a confection of brown sugar, butter, lard, flour and a few secret ingredients.
Regulars like Mr. Burke are convinced that the flaky golden tarts on their plates are Canada’s best. The Lingards now want the Kawarthas to recognize that.
On June 19, Ms. Marshall told a June 19 meeting of Wellington North’s council that the Kawarthas had promised to label their tour as the Kawarthas-Northumberland Butter Tart Tour. While it isn’t enough for the Lingards, she says she’s pleased with the “respect” in the response.
The exchange between the two towns has been almost painfully polite, but the tension is hard to miss.
“We might not have had the first butter tarts, but we have the best ones, that’s our claim to fame,” Ms. Theriault said.
Defiant, Ms. Lingard raised her arms and laughed at the suggestion. “She can come down and put her butter tarts next to mine” – but she won’t like the comparison, Ms. Lingard said.