December 12, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Saturday marked the end of Winnipeg's inaugural Burger Week -- a seven-day meat-up that looked to unearth this city's premier patty.
In all, 30 restaurants were involved, including a few not normally associated with ground round, among them Saigon Jon's, La P'Tite France and Pizzeria Gusto.
Conspicuously absent from the list of participants was the White Top Drive-In, a North End institution whose fatboys and chili burgers currently have a 93 per cent approval rating on Urbanspoon. Suffice to say, the White Top's Demos Louizos didn't notice a dip in sales while Winnipeggers were out and about, sampling entries infused with ingredients like tomato-ginger chutney, Asian slaw or fried paneer.
"If someone comes to me and asks, 'Do you have such and such?' I tell them very politely this probably isn't the place for you," says Demos, 36, who runs the White Top alongside his father, Peter. "I understand that there's a market for people who want something like nori on their burgers, but here it's about tradition. Always has been."
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Peter Louizos was born in Eressos, Greece. He moved to Winnipeg in 1966 to join his younger sister -- a trip that was somewhat memorable.
First, Peter couldn't speak a lick of English. So when he boarded a train in Halifax bound for the Prairies, rail officials taped a sticker to his jacket reading "Winnipeg" to make sure he didn't get off at the wrong stop.
Second, because the island the Louizos are from is only about 100 kilometres wide, Peter was ill-prepared for the five days and nights it took him to reach his destination and spent all the money his sister wired him for food before he reached Toronto. (Even better: Peter, who'd never seen snow before, arrived in town on March 3, 1966 -- one day before what became known as the Great Blizzard shut Winnipeg down for the better part of a week.)
Peter eventually landed a job with a construction firm based in Fort Garry Industrial Park. Cooking was his first love, however, so in 1973, he and his brother, Tony, purchased a converted house in that area and opened the P and T Drive-In at 1200 Chevrier Blvd. Around the same time, a buddy of Peter's, Bill Fatouros, opened the White Spot Drive-In at 409 Manitoba Ave. When Fatouros decided to return to Greece in 1985, Peter bought his chum's business and shifted operations closer to his Matheson Avenue home.
Twenty-eight years later, Peter, 70, remains a fixture at the White Top. (The takeout-only locale was forced to tweak its name about 10 years ago after a B.C. chain claimed it had registered "White Spot" across the country.)
"My dad's not a golfer or a gardener, nor does he like to stay home and tinker with cars," says Demos, who joined his father full-time in 2011, after a three-year stint managing Joey Polo Park, and Joey Kenaston. "He's got a satellite here so he can watch his Greek news. He still helps with orders all the time. He wouldn't know what to do if he didn't come to work every day."
The reason Demos left Joey to go into the family biz was simple: He wanted to make sure the White Top would be around for years to come.
"When I see a place like Kelekis close after 80 years, to me, that's a shame," Demos says. "So I thought I would take what I learned (at Joey) and combine it with my dad's work ethic and come up with some sort of hybrid way of running things here."
Granted, not all Demos's suggestions see the light of day. One time, Demos floated the idea of changing the building's colour scheme. Since Day 1, the White Spot has been instantly recognizable, thanks to its red-and-white-striped exterior.
"I said, 'Maybe instead of the stripes going up and down, we could have them on a slant,'" Demos says. "Dad just kind of looked at me and said 'Do what you want. But it's stupid.' "
As for the fare at the White Top, don't let us sway you. Instead, ask the expat Winnipeggers who hit the place up for fries and gravy whenever they return to their hometown, often before they go to see their parents.
"I have a friend who works for WestJet," Demos says. "She told me about a person who showed up for his flight with a bag of burgers he was bringing back for his kids. 'Trust me,' she said. 'Everybody on that plane knew there was chili on board.' "
Demos laughs when he is asked where the recipe for that chili is kept. "You're not going to believe this, but my dad has this toy cup he got from KFC back in the '80s. That's what he uses to measure his spices.
"I asked him once how much it was, exactly, in case I ever needed to know. He pulled out his Inspector Gadget cup and said, 'How much? It's this much.' That was the end of that conversation."
Finally, in regards to events like Burger Week -- and the inevitable debate they spark as to what burger in town is tops -- Demos has an opinion why certain locales like the White Top always seem to be part of the conversation.
"The people like my dad, who run places like Dairi Wip, Mrs. Mike's and VJs, are all cut from the same cloth. They're all humble, honest, hard-working people who have put their heart and soul into what they do. As you get older, you learn to respect that quality.
"When you're young, you're always thinking, 'I want to do something exciting, something glamourous with my life.' But you know what? This is good. This is great."
Tradition can be trendy, too
LAST week, the Free Press's Alison Gillmor wrote about trendy food hybrids in her Wednesday food column. In particular, Gillmor touched on the ramen burger -- that is, a burger served on a bun made of fried noodles. It turns out the White Top Drive-In has a hybrid all its own.
"There's one guy who comes here who always orders the same thing: a double fatboy and a cheese dog, both with all the trimmings," Demos Louizos says. "One day, he told us he wanted to combine the two. He asked us to cut the dog in half and stick it in the burger. I was like, 'Man, if you can eat it, all the power to you.' " (Later, Demos came up with a name for the dish: the torpedo.)
Not everybody is a glutton for punishment. For example, the author of the blog Love Me, Love My Winnipeg has a decidedly less filling request whenever she visits the White Top.
"I ask for 10 french fries," says the writer, who goes by Winnipeg Girl. "But they still always give me too many."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2013 A1