• Lawrence Herzog

Edmonton's original burger kings

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

Originally published January 15, 2004

These days when most North Americans think of Burger King, they most often think of the American franchise chain, home of "the Whopper." But Edmontonians might remember another Burger King, a local one, that kick-started the burger and then the chicken craze in the city nearly 50 years ago.

The Edmonton Burger King sprang from the fertile minds of William R. Jarvis and James Duncan Rae, two partners who had met in the 1940s. Jarvis was an army veteran and Rae was air force and the two, working at the Imperial Oil refinery, forged a partnership that was to change Edmonton’s restaurant industry.

The story of the drive-in restaurant in Edmonton goes back to 1953. Jarvis was on holiday in Great Falls, Montana and he stayed next to a Dairy Queen -- the first drive-in he had ever really noticed.

"I figured this was something that would really go and so I got in touch with the Dairy Queen people and asked about a location for Edmonton," the enterprising and entrepreneurial Jarvis recalled when I interviewed him in 1999. "Well, they told me I couldn't sell ice cream to Eskimos."

Undaunted, Jarvis and Rae pooled their resources and opened a location at 8705 118 Avenue, leasing the site from a church. Thus the "Dairy Drive-In" was born. Jarvis recalls that the little outlet was busy right away.

When the two-year lease expired, the church wanted the property back and so the partners found another site on 112th Avenue just west of 82nd Street and hauled their building over there. They hit on the idea of selling burgers, a quickly growing commodity in the States, that same year.

Bill Jarvis and Jim Rae with Col. Harlan Sanders, c1970. Photo courtesy Bill Jarvis.

The name Burger King came, as Jarvis tells it, "right out of the air." Unbeknownst to the partners, the moniker was also being liberated from the atmosphere by another fertile mind in Miami, Florida.

Within a couple years, the American Burger King franchise was spreading across the States like wildfire. The Yankees were anxious to expand into the Great White North, but Jarvis and Rae had copyrighted the name in Canada. So began months of negotiations and in 1965/66, the rights to all of Canada except northern Alberta were sold to the Miami company.

"We kept this area because we wanted to run our business," Jarvis recalled. It wasn't until 1995 that the American Burger King at long last succeeded in prying the Edmonton rights from the savvy Edmontonians.

A significant chapter in the story of the Edmonton Burger King story occurred in 1959, when the partners became intrigued by the success of a little fast food poultry venture from south of the border. They bought the rights to Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1959 but, unlike ice cream and burgers, local acceptance of the product was initially lukewarm. But then in 1960, it started to sell and, by the mid-1960s, Edmonton was the Canadian per capita sales champion for the Colonel's recipe.

Peddling burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken turned out to be the classic example of the right product at the right time. Propelled by evolving dining patterns, burgeoning personal income levels and the baby boom, business was fantastic and the local Burger King grew to a dozen locations.

"It was the convenience of being able to drive in and eat right in your car, or take it home ready to serve," Jarvis says. "That was what people wanted."

The outlets became part of our local culture in a special way. As a kid, I can remember returning from summer holidays and going for a Burger King mushroom cheese burger and an order of corn fritters at the location on 118th Avenue and 125th Street. It was a meal you couldn't buy anywhere else and it signified that we were indeed home.

The partners also brought to Edmonton "Chicken on the Way," a delivery service that, at its peak, was generating more than $1 million a year. "We kept it going until 1970 when KFC forced us to phase it out," Rae explains. "But boy did it go over well through the sixties."

In 1974, another American burger chain you may have heard of at long last came into the Edmonton market. The arrival of McDonald's forever changed our city's fast food landscape, driving many smaller operators out of business and catapulting franchised operations to the fore. Edmonton's large number of young, middle-income families and younger single people helped stoke the demand for fast food and, by 1977, McDonald's five local outlets boasted the highest average sales volume in Canada.

Colonel Harlan Sanders and KFC women, Edmonton, circa 1970. Photo courtesy Bill Jarvis.

Bill Jarvis regards his company’s early days with a mixture of pride and astonishment. "It was hard work, make no mistake about it. Long hours and you were always going on adrenaline. But people in the business were so friendly because it was new to everybody. It was a time of excitement, no doubt about it."

As the market evolved, with drive-throughs replacing drive-ins, the partners throttled back their business to just a few locations, headquartered from their office at the 95th Street location. Photos of the early days tell the story of when, 50 years ago, they had the right idea at the right place at the right time. For those Edmontonians old enough to remember, they'll always be the real burger kings.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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