Gem on a bun
Photos: The Chickenburger Archives
The Chickenburger has been the backdrop for many local family memories over the last 76 years. One of those families was Jo-Ann McNamara’s. In 1968 her father was in the navy, but whenever he came home they visited The Chickenburger together. She recalls that the special job of going to place the order at the counter fell to her dad.
“I clearly remember going and standing with him at the window when he ordered the food and helping him bring it back to the car where mom was waiting for us,” she says. “The cool thing was getting to eat in our 1967 Ford Galaxy.”
The Chickenburger is a Bedford institution. It all started with a man named Salter Innes. He was a successful businessman who owned the Bedford Sunnyside canteen, a name inspired by a place he visited in Coney Island, New York. He built the small eatery in 1930 on the spot that the restaurant of the same name is located today. The location was highly strategic as the only way to get to the popular Bedford Rifle Range was to drive down the Bedford Highway, directly past the Sunnyside canteen.
He hired a young woman named Bernice Simpson to be one of his ice cream scoopers and one evening his son, Jack, came by while Bernice was working. Four years later the couple were married.
Salter had his eye on a piece of property across the street from Sunnyside and convinced Jack and Bernice to buy it, with a loan from him. The area was known as Shadyside, as trees surrounded it. The former oat field had been most recently used for a mini-golf course, but they opened a small drive-in canteen in 1940, the first drive-in in Canada according to local lore, and named it Shadyside.
They started out by offering a small menu of hot dogs, hamburgers, soda, and chicken rolls, plus selling cigarettes. The chicken roll was a homemade, fresh chicken recipe they developed themselves, served up on a hot dog bun. The drive-in format proved popular and they saw a steady stream of traffic pulling off the highway to enjoy the food from the comfort of their cars.
Times got tougher as the war raged on. There were strict rules against increasing prices on existing menu items due to wartime rationing. The business was allowed to add a new menu item with a higher price. Salter suggested they swap out the hot dog bun in the chicken roll for a hamburger bun and rename it the chickenburger and charge a nickel more. This “new” menu item quickly became their signature dish. It’s still made the same way as it was in 1943.
After the war, the population in Bedford was growing quickly and in 1952 the Bedford Highway was realigned. In order to accommodate the new roadway they had to physically move the Shadyside canteen back from the main road. They took this opportunity to construct a new building on the property, which is still used today, and added six interior stools. During this time they also started calling the drive-in by the name of their most popular item, The Chickenburger, despite officially incorporating it as Jack Innes, Inc.
To the Innes family, the restaurant was more than a family business; it was a way of life. They even raised their family in the house behind the restaurant. While Jack worked at the Bedford Naval Magazine in the early years, Bernice ran the day-to-day operations until she fell ill in 1956; she had what was called an “Asian flu” which kept her on bed rest for six weeks. Jack decided it was time to quit his job to work full time at the restaurant, where they worked side-by-side until they passed the restaurant down to their son, Tom, and his wife, in the mid-70s.
The 1970s also saw fast food giant McDonald’s arrive on the scene. They were scouting locations in Bedford and offered to buy The Chickenburger property, but the Innes family turned them down. However, having McDonald’s give them serious competition for diners pushed them to make their first major menu changes in decades to keep up with new customer demands. In 1971 they built a 3.7-metre addition to the restaurant and bought a deep fryer to make fries, and added milkshakes and slushies to the menu.
It wasn’t until 1986 that they capitalized on the growing trend of sit-down restaurants that the fast food restaurants started. They added a 305-metre expansion to the building to provide a large seating area. The glass blocks used to build it came from the original Sunnyside Restaurant, and the new look included a jukebox and a neon sign out front to emphasize their 1950s atmosphere.
Today Jo-Ann McNamara carries on The Chickenburger tradition that her parents started, but now with her own daughter.
“We take our 1966 Ford Mustang out for a special drive from Halifax, down the Bedford Highway,” she says. “Our daughter loves going and always orders a hamburger, with the works, and, her favourite, a chocolate milkshake.” she says.
The dad in their family now, her husband, has become the one responsible for going to order the food at the window. She now gets to wait in the car for her meal; “Some things haven’t, and should never, change,” McNamara says.
Acknowledgements to The Life and Times of The Chickenburger, as told by Bernice Innes; Historic Bedford by Tony Edwards; and The Chickenburger: A Bedford Landmark since 1940 by Allison Sears (Fort Sackville Press).
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.