by: rick vandervliet
If ever there was a symbol or institution by which Kenora could be identified, it would be Ye Olde Chip Truck at Market Square. It is as recognizable as Husky the Musky and draws every bit as many people if not more as an attraction. The difference between Husky and the chip truck is that with the fish, you can only take pictures. With the chip truck, you can eat the best French fried potatoes east of Vancouver.
The origins of the chip truck are a haze in the memories of nearly everyone in Kenora. Most of them figure the truck was just always there - like a mushroom that sprouted overnight. In fact, the truck made it onto the Kenora scene in 1957. John Hutchuk was a bush pilot from the Toronto area who flew seasonally for Parson’s Airways in Kenora. He got the idea of buying an old truck and converting it so he could make and sell French fried potatoes on the streets of downtown Kenora. He bought an old delivery van locally, probably from Lakeland Dairies, and proceeded to refit it. He built the fryers and all the fittings, and installed the burners for the fryers himself. They were Coleman burners and used Naptha gas to heat the grease. George Granger who was the base manager at Parson’s Airways was a good friend of John and helped him on a regular basis with peeling potatoes, cutting them up and working the truck. The vehicle would park across the street from the Salisbury house, (now Bizzi-bee sandwich shop) and John would sell French fries to the local citizenry during the summer.
After the conversion, the truck was based in Kenora for the summers introducing the locals to a new taste sensation. For at least one winter, the truck headed back to southern Ontario and set up along a street in an urban centre, providing chips to the public who were as attracted to the smell of chips as lemmings are to the sea. It had become a major source of income for the entrepreneur. Everyone thought the poor misguided soul had taken leave of his senses by thinking he could make money selling fries out of a truck parked on a street corner. Little did they know.
With the exception of when it was set up in southern Ontario, it was parked for the winter in Kenora waiting for the warmer temperatures the following spring. The truck would commence its seasonal sojourn in May to open beside what would become the Shop Easy grocery store. In 1964,John was offered and took a job with the Seagrams company in Winnipeg. He offered to sell the chip truck to George Granger for $10,000, but he already had a pretty full agenda as he now owned Vet’s Service station at Rabbit Lake. However, before John moved on he did sell the truck and it was subsequently bought by a local lady, Mary Lukianchuk more commonly known as Chip Truck Mary. She took over the business and ran it as if it were her heart and soul. She would hand peel and cut all her own potatoes and then set up on Chipman street as had her predecessors. She was always one step ahead of the town officials who would try and get her to take out a business license if she was parked too long in one spot. By now, the chip truck had become a local institution that heralded the end of winter as surely as the first robin after the snow melt. The locals knew spring had sprung when the smell of freshly fried potatoes wafted through the air.
Mary ran the truck until 1967 when she met with an unfortunate accident that claimed her life. Her husband tried to run the business after she was gone but his heart wasn’t in it and so the truck was sold to Gus Sloboda who owned it for a year. Gus wasn’t able to devote the energies required to make it a successful enterprise, and in 1969 the business changed hands once again. This time the owners were more knowledgeable. Jack Venus, who hailed from Thunder Bay, along with his partner Leo Dubroy bought the truck. Jack was no newcomer to making French fries. He got his experience by working in what was then Port Arthur, (Thunder Bay) between 1947 – 50 at the pavilion on Boulevard Lake where he was in charge of making the fries. Unbeknownst to him, it would be opportune training to run what had become a thriving and popular Kenora attraction. Within the year, Jack bought out his partner and operated the business with his wife, two full time employees and part time staff as required. The operating season ran from May to October. By now the chip truck had gained a reputation for the finest fries not just locally, but by people from across Canada who stopped in Kenora as a part of their cross country treks. No one left without sampling the fries and everyone left wishing they were available in their home town. Though they catered to tourists and the summer residents, at that time it was the local people who supplied the majority of the trade.
With the ever increasing volume in business, the old fryer was no longer able to keep up with the demand. The original fryer had become cracked and the smoke was tainting the flavour of the chips. In 1969, Jack took the truck into Winnipeg and bought two additional fryers from a restaurant supply store. He picked up a potato peeler from a second hand dealer who in turn had got it from the MacDonald’s fast food chain which was converting to frozen fries. He had the Coleman burners converted to propane which provided faster and more consistent heat. He arranged with Western Grocers, the parent company of the Loblaw store which had replaced Shop Easy, to permanently set up the truck in their parking lot. This was the site of what is now Kenora Market Square. The chip truck was finally able to put down roots.
Potatoes were grown in Manitoba and bought through Western Grocers in Kenora. They came in 75 pound bags and cost $2.00/bag. Jack bought the potatoes a hundred bags at a time and went to the supplier three to four times per week. The grease they used, (one of the secret ingredients) came in 50 lb. pails, cost $10.00/pail and if you bought five, you got one free. Jack notes that the record number of chips that were sold in one day was on a hot summer day in the early ‘70s. They went through 32 bags of potatoes which translates into over a ton of spuds. They were sold during a sixteen hour period between 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 A.M the following morning. He notes that a small serving cost 25 cents and an extra large went for a dollar. They didn’t sell too many of the extra large because the portions were so big most people couldn’t finish them. The truck was always closed on Sundays which was when the grease was filtered and changed and the truck got a thorough cleaning from one end to the other.
The potatoes were stored and peeled in Jack’s basement where he, his wife and two full time employees would peel them, cut out the eyes by hand and relay them to the chip truck. Jack recalls taking buckets full of potato eyes to the Longbow dump every day. Peeled potatoes were kept cold in ice water until they were ready for the fryer so they wouldn’t lose their starch and sugar. They didn’t use just plain white vinegar on their chips either. It was a special vinegar which helped give the fries that unique flavour the Chip Truck had become famous for.
In 1972, Jack’s health had started to fail so he took on a partner, Buzz Haines, to help run the business. By 1973, the work had become too arduous so they sold the chip truck to a local resident, Herb Paul. It was he who started buying the potatoes in bulk and storing them to help ease the handling time. He ran the truck on a seasonal basis until 1984 at which time it was sold to Tim and Deanna Treadway.
It stayed steadily parked in the Loblaw parking lot until Market Square was built. The developer of the town centre asked the Treadway’s if they would like to make the chip truck a permanent fixture at Market Square and they readily agreed. It was during the Treadway’s reign at the helm that the truck was put up on permanent blocks and the burners converted to natural gas. By now the business had been dubbed Ye Olde Chip truck, the name synonymous with those special fries to this very day.
An interesting side note is that with the ever growing French fry potato industry, suddenly there was a demand for big potatoes, which coincidently make the best fries. They had previously been left to rot in the fields and recycled as fertilizer because they were too large for the domestic retail market. Now with the fry industry explosion, farmers had a specialty market which had heretofore remained untapped.
The Treadway’s kept the truck until 1991 when they sold it to Harry O’Hara of HOH Investments. He ran it with his brothers for a few years until they sold it to John Tresoor who in turn sold it to Rob and Lisa Bell in 2001. After substantially growing the business of the Ye Olde Chip Truck, Rob and Lisa sold it to Tara Letwiniuk and Terry Douglas in 2008. After many great years, Tara and Terry sold the business to present owners, Ryan Landon and Daniel Thomson in July of 2015.
The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the way the fries are prepared and what they’re prepared in. These are secrets as closely guarded as the Colonel’s secret recipe of eleven different herbs and spices. There are people who come faithfully every year from across the country to get a couple of feeds of this distinct taste of Kenora. J. B. Nethercutt, owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics once had his plane diverted to Kenora so he could partake in a fry feast from Ye Olde Chip truck. Have other famous people tried the chips? Probably, but the staff are so busy serving their customers that they don’t recognize the many faces that greet them every day. However, all the owners pointed out that every patron is special – there’s no such thing as an unimportant customer.
The publication ‘Outdoor Canada’ noted, Once feted by the CBC for serving the best French fries in Canada, Ye Olde Chip Truck in downtown Kenora Ontario has been known to lure jet-setting vacationers off their flight plans thanks to its coveted deep fried specialty. The LCBO’s publication, ‘Food and Drink’ states, Ye Olde Chip Truck has been a Kenora institution since the 1950s, loved by cottagers, tourists and locals alike. Even Jean Chretien has braved the lineups for fries. Pretty impressive accolades considering their food editors dine at the finest eateries in the country.
Will Ye Olde Chip Truck ever change? The truck might get a new coat of paint or it might get updated equipment, but it will never change its product, one that is as associated with Kenora as Lake of the Woods. It’s a taste unique to Kenora and you just can’t tamper with that.
Special thanks to George Granger and Jack Venus for delving into their memories and providing the information of the early years of the chip truck.