By Ella Jane Myers
For Northern Ontario Business
Sturgeon Falls just might have more chip stands per capita than any other town in North America.
Unfortunately, this sort of data is hard to come by and even harder to verify.
Either way, with four chip stands serving the small northeastern Ontario town of 7,000, located on the Trans-Canada Highway between Sudbury and North Bay, there’s certainly no shortage of everyone’s favourite greasy snack in town.
There’s no shortage of competition either: the debate between which stand serves the best poutine (a patently Canadian dish of cheese curds and gravy on fries) and who makes the best homemade corn dog (hot dogs dipped in a handmade batter, fried and drizzled in yellow mustard) has raged for decades and continues to divide local residents and seasonal tourists alike.
Campers and cottagers in the scenic region go back to their chosen purveyor year after year. Food lovers from nearby cities, including Sudbury to the west, have even been known to make the hour-long trek to Sturgeon Falls solely for some poutine.
The two primary contenders literally face off each day on the town’s Main Street – Larry’s on the east, Riv to the west – the street between them thick with the smell of grease and largely imaginary tension.
While these two are the best known thanks to their visibility, there’s a third, Monique’s, just south across the highway, and then a fourth, Jocko’s, a 13-kilometre drive east from the others, which is often left out of the rivalry altogether thanks to its distance and strong focus on fish and chips.
While customers hold fierce views on the rivalry, some people see the competition in a positive light, and that includes the stands’ owners.
Instead of letting it drive a wedge between them, they embrace the competition as an opportunity to differentiate themselves and work hard to improve their product.
As Kate LePage, the owner of Riv, said: “Each chip stand has their own specialty and uniqueness. It’s not like there’s not enough business for all of us.”
It all started in 1953 when Larry opened his namesake shop. It’s the only one of the four to have been family-owned and operated since day one.
His 11 kids worked the stand for him all through their childhood, instilling a passion for the business in at least one of them, Colette Brulé.
“In those days nobody had anything, so you had to work for what you wanted, but everybody worked. Social life was not first, work was first. You were devoted to your job,” said Brulé.
“Sometimes it was hard but, yeah, you learn... it gave me character, it gave me drive, it gave me ambition, which is why I was able to have the business for so long.”
Brulé officially took over in 1989 with her husband (also named Larry) after going to university and teaching for a few years. She rebuilt the business in 1990 and her son Ivan works for her now; she has high hopes it will stay in the family for another generation.
Not only is Larry’s the oldest, it’s notably the most old-school: they have a simple, classic menu with a handful of staples they’ve perfected.
There’s no website, no Facebook, no other social media. It’s word of mouth and just a phone number if you want to get in touch. But it seems like that’s enough to keep them busy.
The strategy across the street couldn’t be more different.
Riv has a bigger footprint and menu, a modern atmosphere, an active social media presence and a history as arguably established as Larry’s. Even though it opened in 1973, it was the reincarnation of the pre-existing Riviera Restaurant that burnt down in 1972.
Its owners opened the chip stand – Le Petit Riviera, or Riv – to replace it and keep their children busy the following year.
The business changed hands twice after that before being sold to Bruno and Kate LePage in 2017.
Bruno is from the area while Kate is a Culinary Institute of America graduate from Nebraska. They met while working at a New Orleans Marriott Hotel before moving to Montréal to raise their kids, and then moving again to Sturgeon in 2014 to be closer to family.
“I’d never lived in a small town so it was an adjustment,” Kate said. “People are nice, my kids are very happy, and it’s a lot less stressful.”
Since they took over a year ago, the LePages have made an effort to modernize the chip stand by streamlining the offerings so they have a standing menu with rotating specials. Staff are decked out in sharp orange uniforms, and they’re always trying something new.
In May, you might see a strawberry milkshake, while in early July you’re more likely to see one with haskap berries, a sweet blueberry-like fruit ubiquitous to the region.
Kate said the “rivalry” between Riv and Larry’s is largely in peoples’ imaginations, but she welcomes the competition.
Monique Vaillancourt-Mageau of Monique’s feels the same way: “We talk to each other; we’re good friends with [the other stands].”
Together with her husband, Dan Mageau – both from the area – she bought the stand in 1998. The couple leased the property before purchasing it in 2010 and rebuilt the stand into something more solid.
“I’ve always wanted to work for myself and I thought it would be a great place, and I like to cook; I’m not a chef but I like to cook,” laughed Vaillancourt-Mageau.
They differentiate themselves by using vegetarian gravy and serving fresh pickerel. Monique is a round-the-clock presence.
While it’s been a good run, they are looking to retire in the next couple years and make way for someone else to take up the mantle.
The owners of all three chip stands laughed off the rivalry as largely urban legend. Ask anyone around and you’ll find it’s a legend with deep roots in patrons’ imaginations.
Then again, some diners transcend it all together: one in particular will only eat the poutine from Riv, but if he’s craving a corn dog, he heads to Larry’s.
The rivalry certainly doesn’t seem to hurt business either way. If anything, folks seem keen to try the different offerings as a sort of challenge, or to see what the fuss is all about.
In this case, it seems, the competition is healthy for everyone involved.