Creatures of Habit Miss Opportunity

Edmonton wasn't nearly as haywire as Prince George but it was still a western city, full of bravado and beer, if a little more cosmopolitan. There was also a much heartier ethnic population opening restaurants and running businesses. And there was oil money in Edmonton, which meant people could buy things that others wanted to steal. So police officers were busy. And though change can be unnerving to some, I am definitely enlivened by change; I love it. But here's the thing: I also love familiarity. So as much as I was excited about being transferred to another city, one I'd never been to before, I also loved that the RCMP had the same rules, same uniforms, and same protocols in Edmonton as it did in Prince George, and indeed, across Canada. Funny enough, balancing those two opposing forces, newness and familiarity, is at the very core of building and operating a successful franchise. More on franchise building later, but that skill was first honed in the RCMP, which in a way is itself a successful franchise.

The first thing I noticed about Alberta was that there was more respect for RCMP officers than in northern BC. You felt that right away. They loved us in Edmonton. We always got a salute and a nod. So this was a welcome change, and it was nice to feel gratitude. For me, it was a much-needed boost. I was still pretty enthusiastic about police work, but not so much about paperwork, and it seemed to me that the bigger the city, the more forms we had to fill out. My rough-and-tumble career of ducking under yellow police lines and sipping coffee on a stakeout in the early hours of the morning was beginning to involve a lot more yellow pencils being pushed around a big wooden desk. Something a little like boredom had begun to creep in.

I was newly married to a nurse named Elaine Tkatchuk, who I had met at a dance in Regina. She was a Ukrainian farm girl who was just finishing nursing school. After she graduated, I drove from Prince George to marry her on her family's farm in Saskatchewan. She briefly joined me in Prince George. Then she came out with me to Edmonton.

We first moved to The Alhambra, two and a half blocks from a little place called Boston Pizza. I walked by it a lot, but never went in. The apartment was pricey, costing $85 a month, and for the year and a half that we lived there, Elaine and I rarely ate out. When we did have money, we chose Chinese food because it was cheaper and I knew my way around the menu. Truthfully, I didn't really know what pizza was or how to eat it. And the sign didn't say “Boston Restaurant” or “Boston Italian.” It said “Boston Pizza.” And if you weren't familiar with the dish, why would you go? As I said, I love familiarity, so I could be a real creature of habit. Police officers are like that. You have your spots, your favourite places, where they know you and you know them. We like routine.

I had an uncle who was an Edmonton city police officer, and he soon introduced me to a colleague of his, Don Spence. Don was around my age and single at the time. He was a stocky guy, very personable, always up for a party. We became fast friends, getting together after our shifts to grab a bite to eat and unwind. And he liked the food at a place called Boston Pizza. Finally, I caved. I broke out of my routine and said yes.

With a population of about 400,000, Edmonton was just over half the size it is now, but it had vibrant pockets where Greek, Italian, and Chinese restaurants gave off a welcoming glow that drew a rowdy late-night crowd. And, of course, police officers. The owners of these places actually liked to see a couple of squad cars pull up after midnight. To this day I'm not sure why I have such a vivid memory of my first visit to the restaurant. I had been to literally hundreds of restaurants in all my years of being a police officer, from Regina to Prince George, and dozens of small towns in northern BC and Alberta in between.

If the Boston Pizza was nondescript outside, inside it was nothing special either: an open kitchen and takeout counter by the front door, a few Greek statues in little alcoves circling a medium-sized dining area dotted with round tables, each covered in red oilcloth. For ambience, there was a picture of a volcano on the far wall. Another wall was covered in faux stone slabs. The decor was Greek, the food Italian, the name American and the waiters didn't really speak English. I didn't have high hopes for the food.

Even at that hour, the place was jumping. I was a plain-clothes police officer, sporting a longish haircut and a Fu Manchu moustache. There were two Boston Pizza locations — corporately owned stores — in Edmonton at the time, both owned and managed by the five Agioritis brothers: Trifon, Perry, Nino, George and Gus, the boss.

That night Perry greeted me, pencil in hand, yelling, “What do you want?”

I stared at the strange menu. I had no idea. What did I want? Back then the restaurant had 21 kinds of pizza and 3 kinds of pasta — no salads, no soup, no alcohol, just coffee and soft drinks. I didn't eat this kind of food, and I certainly didn't know how to order it.

Finally, Perry made a suggestion.

“Get the Hawaiian.”

“Okay, sounds good.”

The pizza arrived on a stiff piece of cardboard. It was a steaming circle of dough and sauce with some stuff on top held together with cheese. There were no utensils, just napkins. Perry motioned for me to pull the circle of dough apart — with my bare hands! I noticed it was cut into triangles. So I did, reluctantly. Then I took a bite — and it was good. The ham combined with the pineapple was different from anything this meat-and-potatoes Prairie boy had ever eaten, and I liked it. The meal was easy, fast and kind of fun. Pizza was the kind of thing you could put down in the middle of the table and share with friends, everyone grabbing a slice, which to me seemed exotic. In the Canada I grew up in, you sat silently at a table, the only noise being the scraping of your knife on the plate. I was an instant fan.

A few nights later, I found myself at the other location, this time picking up late-night takeout after raving about pizza to my wife. While I was waiting for the order, a fight broke out in the back. Without even thinking, I went into police mode, separating the guys fighting, grabbing them by the scruffs of their necks and tossing them both out. Nino, one of the Agioritis brothers, came over to thank me and offered me a job on the spot as a nighttime bouncer. Moonlighting in the RCMP wasn't allowed, so I just laughed and turned down the offer. “How about if you came in on Friday nights and ate for free — and stayed a while,” he suggested. Seems the brothers had been having trouble with drunk university students getting rowdy, and they wanted to maintain the atmosphere of a family restaurant in a residential neighbourhood. If things got out of hand, Nino said, I'd just be a concerned citizen lending a hand. How could I turn down that offer? I loved the food, and the Agioritis brothers were a TV show in themselves, running around, cooking, cleaning, yelling, fighting and laughing. I sensed that they were my kind of people, loud, loving and gregarious.

So every Friday night, while Elaine worked a night shift at the hospital, I went to Boston Pizza and sipped a soft drink, waiting for a scrap to break out. And I didn't have to wait long. Any time you combine drunk students, pretty girls and the wee hours of the morning, you'll be sure to get a fight. So I was kept busy.

Those few months spent as an undercover bouncer at Boston Pizza were a lot of fun. Sometimes Don joined me. After closing the restaurant for the night, Nino would host an epic poker match at his apartment. (You found the place by looking for the long row of black pointy shoes beside the front door.) I spent a lot of time with the brothers, Gus in particular, the brother who started it all when he jumped ship in Vancouver Harbour in 1958, only $26 in his pocket. I once asked him why a Greek called his first restaurant Boston Pizza. He had never been to the city, and Edmonton was pretty much clear across the continent. He said you had to list three choices when registering a business with the city. He chose Parthenon Pizza, named after the Greek monument, and Santorini Pizza, after his home island, as backups. His first choice was Boston Pizza, after the city of Boston. Why Boston? He was a hockey fan, and he loved Bobby Orr, a Canadian who'd been recruited by the Boston Bruins as a teenager. Plus he liked the sound of the city: it felt solid, traditional, working class. So Boston Pizza it was. (I suspect the name was also easy for him to pronounce.)

Gus knew I was a police officer, and because he was at that time in the country illegally, he was cautious about me at first. Finally I convinced him that I could actually help him get his citizenship. I knew Boston Pizza operated on a cash-only basis, and I told him that if he got caught, all his success would be for nothing. But Gus didn't trust banks. He kept all his dough (the green kind) in a box hidden in a hole in the wall behind a picture in his office. Seriously. My table by the kitchen was a great spot from which to watch all the money pour into the restaurant. Truth be told, Gus never told me exactly how much the business made, even when we signed the formal franchise agreement. To Gus, if the drawer was full of cash and the customers were lining up, business was good. That was the extent of his business plan.

I did a bit of research and learned that there was an amnesty in effect; anyone in the country illegally had only to get a lawyer, fill out some forms and they'd be legal — no questions asked. It didn't take long to get it sorted out for him. Now legitimate, Gus could approach banks for loans to expand his business if he wanted. This was a crucial step, and Gus had to trust me in order for him to take it.

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