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From The Archives: Flying Fried Chicken And Contraband Burgers

From The Archives: Flying Fried Chicken And Contraband Burgers

The strange saga of fast food in the far North, '90s style.
By Georgina Bent, Lavona C. Clarke
Jul 09

In celebration of its 35th year, Up Here is resurfacing some greatest hits from our archives. This story originally appeared in the May/June 1990 edition and serves as a nice combo to our July/August research story on Kentucky Fried’s mournful exit from Yellowknife.

Thirty years ago, Big Macs came from Edmonton, and KFC and pizza were the only game across the 50 communities of NWT and Nunavut. Great places to eat come and go, and some of our readers will remember the Purple Dinosaur in Fort Providence, Wilf’s Place in Cambridge Bay, To Go’s Takeout and Delivery in Inuvik, Brownie’s Fried Chicken and Munchie’s in Yellowknife and the By the Sea Restaurant in Apex. Today, the Northmart serves up KFC through Quick-Stop convenience stores and airline commuter runs now carry home boxes of Timbits. —Editor

Originally published: May 1990

When the craving for “two all-beef patties with lettuce cheese pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun” hits you in the Northwest Territories, you have to take drastic steps.

There are no Golden Arches in the NWT [Not at the time –Ed.]. Edmonton’s the nearest place you can find the antidote to your Big Mac attack. Edmonton’s 940 kilometres south of our largest population centre, Yellowknife. And they don’t deliver.

Take heart, though. You can always do what hundreds of Northerners do: beg anyone you know who’s travelling Outside—vacationers or business people, friends, neighbours or distant acquaintances—to bring you back a Mac. If they have a shred of human decency, they’ll take your order. Besides, they know perfectly well that someday the situation is likely to be reversed.

Bags off-loaded at many a Northern terminal frequently emit the fondly recalled aroma of McDonald’s. Burger lovers seem tireless in their efforts to recreate the formica and cardboard joys of fast food.

The situation’s so acute that the 1988 graduating class of Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife was able to use the coveted Big Mac as a fundraiser. Hayley Swann brought 250 of them back from Edmonton. Then the enterprising school committee zapped them in the microwave and sold them to the eager student population on a first-come, first served basis. They were sold out before you could shout, “Gimme a Mac!”

On the domestic front, imported McDonald’s are a prized treat, too. “There are no cries of, ‘What did you bring me?’ when I get back from business trips,” says one dad. “The kids always hit me with, ‘Did you bring me a Big Mac?’ Now I automatically stop at the last McDonald’s on the way to the city airport before heading north!”

And kids whose dads fly regularly to Whitehorse are the envy of their peers: the McDonald’s in the Yukon capital does a roaring trade, a surprising amount of it in Macs that get smuggled across the mountains. But sad and unbelievable as it may seem, there’s no branch of the giant burger chain in the Northwest Territories—despite constant wistful rumours that a McDonald’s is just over the horizon.

Not only is there no McDonald’s in the Northwest Territories [Now, we have two], there’s no Dairy Queen [briefly], no Wendy’s [still no], no Arby’s [nope], no Pizza Hut [yes!], no Burger King [no]. There are, however, countless television commercials beamed in from the South that advertise these delicacies enough to bring about Fast Food Shock. What’s a junkie to do?

NWT Air’s Inuvik base manager J. Andy Hutchinson admits he’s had a flight attendant from Edmonton bring him a Pizza Hut special. Barb Thorp just couldn’t resist bringing two Cinnabon Buns with cream-cheese icing all the way from Edmonton. Lots of us scheme to get Chinese food delivered extraordinary distances—from Yellowknife to Coppermine [Kugluktuk], for instance. At last count, there were nine pizza places in Yellowknife (to feed a population of fewer than 15,000). There are delivered pizzas, pick-up pizzas, and eat-in pizzas. You can buy ‘em by the slice; you can share with a pal; you can order by number or by name. And the toppings are limited only by the consumer’s imagination. By the Sea Restaurant in Apex (a suburb of Iqaluit) has adapted pizza to Northern tastes: you can top yours with caribou, muskox, or Baffin shrimp!

But the people of the Northwest Territories have one undisputed favourite fast food. When the Royal Canadian Air Farce recently took to the stage at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, their first ad-lib skit asked a compelling question: what’s the national dish of the NWT: a) pizza, b) Kentucky Fried Chicken, c) seal flippers, d) whale blubber?

The correct answer is Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There must be some mistake. Southern-style fried chicken just couldn’t be our favourite Northern food! But it is. In fact, we eat more Kentucky Fried than any other place in all of North America. Just ask Len Jason, vice president and general manager of Colonial Food Systems Ltd., who runs the only Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in the Territories, in Yellowknife.

“We lead North America in per capita consumptions,” says Jason. “Kentucky Fried Chicken is a favourite in every community in the Northwest Territories.”

All the widely scattered communities of the Northwest Territories are served by Len Jason’s single franchise. You can call in from the nearest hamlet and have a cab bring your bucket of chicken-to-go. But most of the booming take-out trade Len does is in flying Kentucky Fried. Out-of-towners regularly call in credit card orders or stop by on their way through the capital city. Buckets and more buckets of chicken are airfreighted to far-flung villages and towns, to Forts Simpson and Smith, to Providence, Hay River, Norman Wells, and mine sites on the tundra. Kentucky Fried regularly flies to the Eastern Arctic, and all the way to Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, and the settlements along the Arctic Coast.

As soon as the franchise opened its doors in 1968, people began this long-distance take-home habit. The trend really took off in the '90s. At Christmas, when everybody comes to town to shop, chicken orders hit stratospheric heights.

But flying chicken out of town creates certain problems. How, for instance, do you keep it hot? Answer: you don’t. A few folks have tried carrying buckets of chicken straight from the fryer to the airport, but as everybody knows by now, it’s not safe to eat tepid chicken. It has to be hot or cold.

Kentucky Fried decided to supply two kinds of chicken-to-go; Quick Chill and Quick Frozen. The two methods of cooling cooked chicken make it safe to fly for both short and long distances. Quick chill is most often used when a person is buying a bucket to take on the plane. But large-scale bulk orders are usually Quick Frozen.

Once the chicken’s cooled, it has to be easy to carry. “In the early '80s, we developed special packaging, boxes made out of heavy-duty cardboard that were designed to fit properly under the seat of an airplane,” says Jason.

What about those bulk orders? What scale are we talking here?

“The biggest single order we ever had was from Inuvik three years ago,” says Jason. “An order came in for 6,000 pieces of chicken. Our cooks worked around the clock for two days.”

When you’re standing in line for a flight heading north from Yellowknife Airport, you often spot the Colonel in line, too.

One day, not long ago, Up Here ran into Norm Snow and Andy Carpenter. Snow was destined for Inuvik; Carpenter was going to Sachs Harbour. Andy’s luggage included a Kentucky Fried Chicken shopping bag and a cardboard box containing six buckets of the sought-after stuff. All this, even though the poor guy was on crutches. Norm was happy to help him out: up here, everybody understands the crying need for exotic edibles.

Living in the North makes our fast food craving a little harder to satisfy—but, where there’s a will, there’s a way!