My new friend Sol says a business can have one or 1,000 branches – but not two. Having many branches both requires and supports the development of systems and personnel that permit brand standardization, which is a nasty way of saying that they do the same thing chainwide. Look at McDonald's. Like it or hate it, you know exactly what you'll get in Huntsville or Hong Kong.
But the new Burger's Priest is number two.
Can Shant Mardirosian be in two places at once? Hardly. Does he have trained and trusted supervisory staff who ensure that the new North Toronto branch precisely mimics the original on Leslieville?
Unfortunately, it's like Sol said. When I walk into the original Priest, lineup or no, I feel at home. The counter dude looks me in the eye, smiles, and asks how I want my burger cooked. When I say "rare," there is often a blessing forthcoming. The new Priest, on Yonge north of Lawrence, has mega lineups and a churlish counter-person who does not smile, does not ask how I want my burger cooked, and certainly doesn't meet my eyes. The mood is better at lunchtime, but by suppertime, several hundred burgers down, grace is gone.
The lineups are crazy. By opening time at 11:30 a.m. there tend to be 30 people on the sidewalk. After 6 p.m. that 30 becomes 50 and you might wait more than half an hour. Outside. Once you make it into the inner sanctum and have ordered, you wait about 15 minutes to get the food.
Not much of a welcome.
While you're waiting for your burger, you stand in a cramped and drafty little area with a few stools, and religious passages on the wall writ large in Hebrew and English. Here at son of Priest, Mr. Mardirosian, a former seminarian, is out front with his religious observance. On the door, where it usually says "closed" beside Sunday, it says "church."
When your order is ready they yell your name. Fail to respond promptly by fighting your way through the crowd to the counter, and they yell it again. And I mean yell. I get why they're in a bad mood: Overwhelmed, too many customers lined up out the door. But c'mon, it's a service industry. Then you try to leave. I say "try" because no attention has been paid to traffic flow, so on the way out, laden with food and drink, you fight your way through the incoming lineup.
It puts me in mind of Weber's, the iconic burger bar on Highway 11 near Orillia. Everybody adores Weber's, which is interesting given that they sell a lousy, thin, overcooked burger and frozen fries. We go there because they manage their perennial lineups with geometric finesse, they play great tunes, and they smile a lot. Perhaps Mr. Mardirosian needs to take a page from Weber's book.
Or maybe he already has. My burgers at the new place have all been overcooked (although the basic rough-ground four-ounce patty remains lots of fun). The fries were soggy and less than sweet. I used to find it charming that all the cheese is processed slices but now … not so much. As for the milkshakes at the new place, artificial vanilla-, strawberry- and coffee-flavour syrups do not turn my crank, nor does cheap chocolate.
Then there's the secret menu. It's on a couple of blogs, but not posted at the restaurant itself. Kind of coy and silly. Most of its items are very complicated and not much fun to eat because they're too big and things get soggy and fall apart. The most popular item is the Vatican: The bun is replaced by two grilled cheese sandwiches and there are two burgers. The inner slice of bread in each grilled cheese turns soggy. Not so great.
The Tower of Babel is the same as the Vatican but with an added option: two rubbery, bread-crumbed portobellos stuffed with processed cheese and deep fried.
There is a McDonald's across the street and Burger Cellar, a gourmet burger bistro, two doors south, but customers are still lining up to get blessed at the Priest. Zagat's just named it the third-best restaurant in Toronto, after Scaramouche and Chiado! Methinks the emperor is having a wardrobe malfunction.