My Canada, 54/150: The beautiful burger

I’m a pretty darned good home cook who takes care to create nutritious meals. When we occasionally eat out, I prefer restaurants where the chef makes everything from scratch and seeks local produce. I avoid fast-food restaurants and chain restaurants whose entrees are cooked by plunging a factory-made meal, sealed in a plastic bag, into boiling water. But every once in a while, I gotta get me some Harvey’s hamburger.

I am unwavering in my order  – a big differentiator for Harvey’s is that you choose what you want, assembled in front of you: original beef patty, whole wheat bun, onion, lettuce, double pickles, double tomato. Cheese? No. Sauce? No. Mayo? No.

Harvey’s is a Canadian-only fast-food chain founded in 1959 with franchises in all 10 Canadian provinces. It’s best known for its burgers, although over the years it has added many other offerings: hot dogs, grilled chicken on a bun, fish sandwiches, wraps and, most recently, bowls (rice, salad or fries on bottom, burger or chicken on top, plus piled-on condiments.) I ignore it all, except the Original Burger. Flame-broiled on a charcoal grill. Deliciously, if not healthily, seasoned and salted.

Harvey’s was a special-occasion treat in my family. There was one about a 20-minute drive away on King Street in Waterloo, at what was then the edge of the city. If we were in Kitchener or Waterloo for appointments or shopping, we’d often stop at Harvey’s on the way in or on the way home. I’d get a burger and sometimes a chocolate milkshake – something I never do now, knowing that a large one has 720 calories, almost twice as much as my burger.

Harvey’s was the site of one of my mother’s most memorable blond moments. She and I stopped there in Waterloo after an errand and she managed to lock the keys in the car – while they were in the ignition and the car was still running. The nice manager let her use the Harvey’s phone (pre-cell-phone times, then), she called my father, and he was able to drive there in 20 minutes from home (a two-car family, then) with an extra set of keys. By the time he got there, we had enjoyed our lunch, and life carried on.

When I settled in Toronto, I discovered there was a Harvey’s not too far away from where I lived, at the corner of Gerrard and Jarvis streets. Alas, for many years it has borne the ignominious nickname of “Hooker Harvey’s”, a remnant of the not-so-distant days when Jarvis was lined with prostitutes on the sidewalks and prostitute-seeking drivers on the street.

59 Harvey's daylight
“Hooker Harvey’s”: in its own way, a Toronto landmark. Photo: Kelley Teahen

It is, to put it kindly, not the fanciest of Harvey’s outlets. But, I can attest, the burgers taste the same.

The Harvey’s franchise, founded by Torontonians George B. Sukornyk and Rick Mauran in 1959, became part of Cara Operations in 1979. Cara has been a major player in the Canadian food and restaurant industry since the 19th century, when it started out as the Canadian Railway News Company, selling food, newspapers, and other provisions to rail passengers. It then moved into airline catering in the 1930s, all the while run by descendants of founder Thomas Phelan.

While Cara sold its airline catering business to a Swiss company in 2010, its reach on the ground across Canada is immense: in addition to Harvey’s, it owns Swiss Chalet, Kelseys Original Roadhouse, Milestones Grill and Bar, Montana’s BBQ & Bar, East Side Mario’s, Prime Pubs, Bier Markt, Landing Group, Casey’s Grill • Bar, New York Fries, and recently acquired St-Hubert, a restaurant chain that started in Quebec. Newer Harvey’s restaurants tend to be paired with a Swiss Chalet, which has its own fierce following for its rotisserie chickens and Chalet Dipping Sauce. Canadian writer Bronwen Wallace even made a Swiss Chalet the setting for “Chicken and Ribs” in one of my favourite short story collections, People You’d Trust Your Life To.

I could happily go the rest of my life without ever going to any  Cara restaurants – except Harvey’s. Their famous jingle from the 1970s still rings true with me, today:

Harveys makes a hamburger (beat beat beat) a beautiful thing.

Main photo: Chris Moorehead

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