We have some good news and some bad news.
The good news is, cows no longer have to shake in their boots, err, hooves, afraid Sandy Doyle is going to turn them into a two-, three- or (burp) nine-pound burger.
The bad news: Doyle, the enigmatic 68-year-old owner of Blondie’s Burgers, perhaps best known for its size XXXL fare (One-litre milkshakes! Four-wiener hotdogs! Chili-cheese fries for six!), will be permanently closing her restaurant, as iconic a spot as you’ll find in our fair burg, later this week.
Doyle, who opened Blondies at 1969 Main St. in September 1990, originally listed Jan. 20 as her final day behind the grill when she announced her decision on Facebook on New Year’s Day. She’s since bumped that date up to this weekend, simply because things have become so hectic there since word spread that she can’t bear to make customers wait up to four hours for their order any longer.
"I’m not kidding, this has been stressing me out to no end," Doyle says, seated in her 36-seat restaurant, where the decor, which famously includes a hand-written list of dos and don’ts ("If your order is wrong it’s your own fault"; "If you have ANY problems with the prices, the staff or the way this place is RUN, McDonald’s is down the street"), is as much a part of the experience as what’s on one’s plate.
"First I was thinking I’d call it quits Friday. Except a group from Saskatchewan just called to say they can’t get here before Saturday, and could I please stay open one more day. How could I say no to people willing to drive 500 miles for a fricking burger?" she says, throwing her head back in laughter.
Doyle, born and raised in Carman, moved to Winnipeg from Kenora in the mid-1980s, after her marriage ended. She initially got a job selling insurance. Her hours were all over the map, however, and, fancying herself a decent cook, she decided to open a restaurant instead.
"How could I say no to people willing to drive 500 miles for a fricking burger?" – Sandy Doyle
Blondie’s, a tag the redhead came up with up while standing in line to register her business (if she had a dollar for every time she’s been called Blondie, she would have retired 15 years ago, she says with a wink), opened as a breakfast-and-lunch nook. To say her first day on the job was memorable is putting it mildly.
"It was absolutely horrible," she says, pausing to forward calls from a phone that has been ringing off the hook for the last 10 minutes. "Seven guys came in a few seconds after nine (a.m.) and they were already drunk. I was all by myself, the girl I hired never showed up, and for the next hour, all they did was scream things like, ‘Where’s our effing food?’ and, ‘Show us your…, Blondie.’ I remember kneeling down in the back, crying and wondering what I’d gotten myself into."
Things improved, of course, particularly after Doyle, bored one afternoon, began experimenting with how large a burger she could turn out, while still being able to flip it. She started with two pounds of ground round, bumped that up to four and kept at it until, when all was said, done and grilled, she had successfully prepared a nine-pound burger.
She promptly added the behemoth to the menu in the form of a challenge: polish it off in a single two-hour sitting and it was on the house.
Before long, TV types from across the country were dropping by to showcase Blondie’s on programs such as You Gotta Eat Here and Get Stuffed. That led to customers showing up from as far away as Australia, Iceland and Japan to try their hand/mouth at Doyle’s signature burger.
Because it takes so long to prepare, and because she’s already having trouble keeping up with demand, Doyle is no longer offering the nine-pounder, last priced at $170.50. That means a gal named Jana, who, according to Doyle, weighed "120 pounds soaking wet" when she dropped by some 20 years ago, will go down as the only person in history to have successfully downed the burger in the allotted time frame.
"Though, to be honest, it probably won’t even hit me till I turn in the keys at the end of the month." – Sandy Doyle
Doyle kept Blondie’s open during the various provincially mandated lockdowns, largely relying on delivery services to get her food to the masses. The problem was, she was working for pennies, she found, after factoring in the applied fees and ever-rising food costs.
She guesses it was around September when her brother Greg, who handles her books, bluntly told her she was likely going to burn through her retirement savings if she chose to keep going under the current conditions. That, coupled with the fact she couldn’t sit and trade barbs with her clientele the way she was accustomed to owing to health regulations, convinced the grandmother of three it was time to park her apron for good.
Doyle, always a dedicated follower of fashion (on the day we sit down with her, she’s wearing a black-and-white, three-quarter-length dress, augmented by high-heeled black ankle boots and assorted pieces of jewelry), has yet to settle on what she’ll pull out of the closet for her farewell.
She’s also unsure if she’ll be able to hold it together without tearing up every 10 minutes.
"Though, to be honest, it probably won’t even hit me till I turn in the keys at the end of the month," she says, noting the plan is to spend the last two weeks of January selling off coolers, tables, chairs… even the larger-than-life faux burgers that have decorated the premises for three decades.
Also, if one of the hundreds of pictures adorning the walls is a shot of you and yours, be her guest if you want it back, she says.
‘The times I’ve felt the worst are when I’ve gone online, and read all the beautiful notes, many of them from people who started coming here with their parents, and now show up with their own kids in tow," she says, reading off a message posted seconds earlier that starts, "My very first visit, I was four years old and I still remember… the taste of the shake…Winnipeg will never be the same."
Before excusing herself to inform a group of 10 lined up outside that she won’t be opening for another 45 minutes, at least not until her lone employee arrives, she allows that 32 years sped by in a heartbeat. And that while it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, she wouldn’t trade a second of it. OK, maybe those occasions when she was described online as some diabolical "burger Nazi." (Rule No. 7: Ordering a milkshake when it’s busy will result in DEATH.")
"It is bittersweet, but I’m really looking forward to the next chapter of my life," she goes on, adding, as an unabashed cat lover, she’s already thinking about volunteering at a pet rescue centre.
"The thing is, if you’d told me in 1990 I’d still be here 32 years later, I’d have said you were (bad word) nuts. So yeah, it was definitely a good run; something I should probably be proud of, right?"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.