Tourists drive by, see a line of people at Ye Olde Chip Truck -- and there usually is one--and their stomachs wonder what all the fuss is about.
"It's the best advertising. People will see the lineup and stop," said Lisa Bell, who owns the French fry operation with husband, Rob.
Ye Olde Chip Truck turns 50 years old this year.
Rob and Lisa Bell are the 9th owners since it began.
Chip trucks are as common as spam e-mail today, but Ye Olde was a novel idea when it began in 1957. A bush pilot named John Hutchuk had the brainstorm to convert an old 1948 milk truck into a moving French fry restaurant. A tinsmith built the first fryers and they were heated with naptha gas.
Among owners that followed were Tim and Deanna Treadway, the older couple from the Pioneer Quest reality TV series, based on pioneers trying to survive a year in Manitoba's Interlake with technology from 1875. (The Treadways, who used to offer French fries free on Canada Day, also gave the truck its name.)
The chip truck has become an institution in Kenora Market Square. There are no tables. People consume the fries on park benches.
Seagulls frequently come in for a landing to join diners. Otherwise, the gulls perch atop the Kenora Market Square building and peer glassily down like gargoyles at Notre Dame Cathedral, waiting for a fry to drop. One of Ye Olde's souvenir T-shirts says: "10,000 seagulls can't be wrong."
The Bells purchased the two Ye Olde trucks and a special events trailer in 2001.
They wanted to make big changes when they started. The cramped quarters inside the original truck make it hard for anyone over five-foot-six to work inside, Lisa said. So they planned to split the truck in half and add a new middle section for the comfort of staff.
But they did some "market research" (asked people in their lineups) and the resounding answer was don't change. "Part of the allure is that little old truck sitting there," said Lisa.
Others have tried to set up additional food booths in the courtyard to sell items like hot dogs and sandwiches but all failed. "They just got in the way of the lineup for fries," said Lisa.
Back to the lineups. They are expected and are part of the total experience. "This lineup is like the abyss--it never ends," sighed server Elise, the owners' teenage daughter, working the window.
The only thing that has changed in 50 years for Ye Olde is the packaging. The fries once came in a cardboard tray that isn't available anymore. The Bells are researching ways to get away from Styrofoam containers.
Ye Olde operates year round, even in winter, although it will close during especially cold snaps. "We absolutely make money in winter, or we wouldn't bother," Lisa said, who also co-owns the Shell franchise down the street with Rob.
Because the truck has limited storage space, Rob will deliver fresh potatoes up to five times a day.
In summer, it gets very hot inside. Two staff wear special EvapoWick T-shirts made of material that wicks moisture away from the body to keep them cooler.
Ye Olde has survived all manner of trends and challenges in the French fry industry, from curly fries to seasoned fries to the low-carb anti-fries movement and transfat concerns.
"I was a little concerned about that but because we use thick fry, they don't absorb oil like the skinny ones. And, it's a treat," Lisa said.
As to what makes Ye Olde's fries special, putting hot bamboo shoots under Lisa's fingernails wouldn't get it out of her. "(The recipe) is very top secret. We had put our signatures down (on the contract) before we got the recipe," she said.
A Ye Olde Chip Truck on the TransCanada Highway, between the Manitoba border and Kenora, is not one of their trucks, and Lisa knew little about it except that it does not use the same recipe.