Jo-Ann Martin and Mark Elson barely sit down outside Bullocks Bistro before they are up again to take a photo for a group of tourists who want a shot of themselves outside the restaurant. That’s just one more thing on their plate when it comes to running Bullocks, a fish-and-chips institution that is arguably Yellowknife’s most charismatic eatery. The ramshackle venue in the heart of Old Town is a relic of Yellowknife’s own Gold Rush days in the 1930s. Its walls are papered in signatures and doodles on international currencies—souvenirs left by diners from around the globe. It’s also a must-smell: you smell the restaurant before you see it.
“If you walk into a restaurant and you can’t smell the food, there’s going to be a problem,” Martin says, sitting in the sun on a wooden bench covered in more scribbled signatures, relics from a local burlesque show. (Martin and Elson loaned their bench to the dancers on the condition it be returned with local flavour.)
It’s a quiet afternoon at Bullocks. The lunch rush is over and Martin and Elson have a few hours to set up for the dinner stampede. The pair purchased the restaurant in 2016 from the original owners—Sam and Renata Bullock—and they’ve kept the business largely the same, with a few small tweaks (namely, they stopped yelling at customers. The previous Bullocks was known for its quirky service to the point that tour operators warned patrons before visiting for a meal).
But the food—the heart of Bullocks success—has stayed the same. “Most businesses that stick to what they do really well, they remain successful,” Martin says. “I think if we were to change stuff, I don’t think we would have that good a reception. I honestly don’t. I think people like the fact that we’ve stayed the same.”
The proof is in the pan. In the two years Martin and Elson have owned the restaurant, it’s remained a staple of the Yellowknife food scene. When asked if they’re profitable, Martin just smiles. “Everything’s done from scratch,” she says. “Except ketchup,” Elson chimes in. Their menu is small, featuring six species of fish and a bison steak. You can have your fish grilled, pan-fried or deep-fried. It’s served with fries and salad with one of their homemade salad dressings (the recipes for which are a closely guarded secret). And there's homemade bread. End of list.
Martin and Elson get the majority of their fish from Northern fishers with fresh orders coming in every day. “Unless the weather is bad and they can’t get out,” Martin says.
The menu follows the seasons, rotating the offerings based on what species are available to meet their needs—more than 110 kilograms of fish each day. They get their Arctic char from Nunavut, and their pickerel comes from Kakisa. “There’s an elderly gentleman down there named Fred Simba, 78-years-old, been fishing his whole entire life. He brings us our pickerel. He’s amazing,” Martin says.
Their restaurant seats 32, and they’ll turn that over four or five times between 4 p.m. and closing time at 9 p.m. They add another 29 seats during patio season. “That’s the size of the kitchen. We couldn’t serve any more people, the kitchen’s not big enough,” Martin says. Staff-wise, they have about 13 employees in total, and they’ll have two or three people working every day—because each body in the restaurant is one more seat that can’t hold a customer. About half the staff carried over from the previous owners. Martin says the most successful servers come from working in bars, where the hustle and bustle are part of the package. “If you want a relaxing job, you better find someplace else to go,” she says.
Elson’s the man behind the stove, coming in daily at 3 a.m. to begin filleting fish and peeling the 225 kilograms of potatoes served every week. (He naps in the afternoon.) “To me the biggest thing that keeps the quality control is you’re cooking in front of people,” Elson says. The open kitchen has a row of counter seats in front where diners can watch the action. “You have to do it right on the money every single time because they’re looking at you. As a cook, you actually get to showboat every time you’re in the kitchen.”
It’s not all fun with fish, however. Like any restaurant, the margins are tight—and operating in Old Town means their costs are higher. Everything from trucking in water to pumping out sewage adds to their bottom line. But what keeps them going—and keeps them in business—is the community around them. “We want people to take ownership. Because people visit here from all over the world, and it’s our business obviously but it’s a part of Yellowknife,” Martin says. Elson agrees— while the tourism boom in Yellowknife may give them an edge over other restaurants in town, it’s the locals that keep the lights on year-round. “You have to look at it as Bullocks is a restaurant for the people,” he says.
The pair worked in the restaurant before buying it and were well-versed in its operations when they took over. Now they are keen to diversify, in line with some of the unrealized dreams of the previous owners—like bottling and marketing their salad dressings. Currently, if asked, they’ll bottle fresh dressing for a customer, but only at the restaurant. One day, Martin says they may have bottles of their sauces available in grocery stores across borders. That might help insulate them from things they can’t control—like this past spring, when they couldn't get fresh fish for 28 days due a long breakup season instead of the usual two weeks. Thanks to a quick call to a local wholesaler for emergency halibut and salmon, Martin and Elson had only one day when they were short of fish—but with margins as tight as they are, that’s a scary proposition.
Martin and Elson are so good at what they do, people ask them to fillet their own catches. “We had some tourists come in. They went out on a fishing trip, and before they went out they said, ‘If we catch anything can you fillet it and cook it for us?’ We just want to have eaten our own fish that we caught. We said, ‘Sure, absolutely,’” Martin says. “We filleted it, fried it up for them and put it on their plate.”
In the end, however, the only insurance they can have is the quality of their food. Elson isn’t spilling all his secrets, but his biggest tip? Butter. They go through more than 10 kilograms of the stuff a day. “Each time you fry a piece of fish that’s a quarter pound of butter,” he says. “We’re not for the faint of heart or the diet conscious, that’s not a good thing here,” Martin adds. “We have large portions, we use butter, we deep fry things. But we’re fresh.”
Pan-fried Whitefish Bullocks Style
• 1 fillet of whitefish
• 1/4 lb unsalted butter
• 2 oz. white wine
• 2 oz. Guinness beer
• seasoning of your choice • flour to coat fillet
Heat frying pan, clarify butter in the heated pan. Dredge fillet in flour and put into frying pan with clarified butter, season with your seasoning of choice. Cook for 3 minutes or until brown, add white wine to sear until alcohol evaporates or flame dies down. Flip fillet to other side, season with your seasoning of choice. Cook for 3 more minutes, add Guinness beer and sear until alcohol evaporates or flame dies down. Plate and sauce with the sauce of your choice. Bullocks secret fish sauce is available in restaurant to purchase.