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wallys burgers

The origional Wally's Drive-In at 2703 Kingsway.


Drive-in burger joints and neon signs have been going steady since the '50s. And in Vancouver, the perfect match was at Wally's Burgers at 2703 Kingsway.

Countless motorists have passed by Wally's classic sign, a kitschy red and green neon jumble that soared three storeys. Countless burger aficionados have chowed down on Wally's Deluxe Wagon, a double patty monster on which you're encouraged to pile on most anything you could ever dream of (including a hot dog).

But you'd better get your Wally's fix quick, because it's closing at the end of March.

Competition from the fast food chains has cut into business, the neighbourhood is being redeveloped, and the rent and taxes are $6,500 a month. So owner Connor Kim has decided not to renew the lease, and is trying to sell the business.

"Very cheap," says Kim, a Korean immigrant with a thick accent.

"[But] higher than hamburger price -- $22,000."

The landmark neon sign goes along with the business. Unfortunately, it's not in the best shape. Paint is peeling off, and parts of the neon letters are burned out on both sides. Kim says there's no point in fixing it, given the restaurant is about to close.

"I am leaving," he says.

"For whom do I fix? For Vancouverites? For city hall?"

Kim has owned the business for five years.

"We used to sell around 200 burgers every day," he says.

"Now it's dropped, people go for cheaper burgers. Our burger is not junk [food], it's a home-style burger. We prepare every morning, very fresh."

Punk rock singer Billy Hopeless thinks Wally's still does the best burger in town.

"The Deluxe Wagon is a superior hamburger, and Wally's is a superior burger joint," says Hopeless, the leader of cult heroes the Black Halos.

"It's got two patties, cheese and lettuce in a hoagie bun, what they call a wagon bun. You can get it with a hot dog if you want, bacon. You can get a fried egg on it. But the main ingredient is Wally's Top Secret Relish, which is not for sale. Even though there's a bucket right behind it that says 'Sun Spun relish' on it, which I think is a no-name brand you buy at Superstore.

"But I love the fact that they call it Wally's Top Secret Relish. And I love the fact that you can get pogos at Wally's, the Canadian corn dog."

Quality burgers have been Wally's forte since an Austrian immigrant named Wally Stritzel started the restaurant in 1962, taking over from another burger joint called Harvey's.

"It used to be the best in town," says Wally's brother Hermann.

"Because everything was fresh, nothing was frozen. If he didn't like the way the hamburger patties looked he'd send it back. The fries, the same way. He advertised his stuff as quality food, that's why he built up his business real good. It was a gold mine at one time. Friday, Saturday night, that place was so damn packed."

Kingsway was hopping in the '60s, when teenagers would cruise up and down the strip, stop in for a burger and shake, then cruise some more.

"They used to have a special, two cheeseburgers for 19 cents," recalls Eric Harvey, whose family has owned Harvey's furniture and appliance store down the street since 1927.

"They used to make their chuck wagon burgers with Canadian back bacon. When Wally Stritzel took it over, his mom used to go in there and clean out the whole kitchen. And it was the cleanest kitchen, 'cause she was Italian, of course."

Actually she was Austrian.

"Austrian, Italian, whatever, when she cleaned that place it was it spotless, it was fantastic," says Harvey.

In spite of its popularity, Stritzel sold Wally's in the '70s.

"He sold out as soon as McDonald's started building up," Hermann Stritzel explains.

"They built a McDonald's at Kingsway and Victoria, he had a hunch [it would hurt business]. So he sold it."

Wally Stritzel suffered from diabetes, and passed away 10 years ago at the age of 63. But the restaurant bearing his name soldiered on. A family named Ahn ran it for many years, then Kim took over.

Kingsway has changed dramatically since Wally's heyday. At one time, Kingsway was the main entrance into Vancouver, which spawned a thriving drive-in culture. It also used to be the place where guys in hot cars would go to race.

"In the summertime we'd just wait outside the store here, waiting for them to wind 'em up," Harvey recalls.

"Then we'd leave here at nine o'clock, go home, get changed and go to the drive-in and drive around."

"Wally's is sort of the last of the roadside architecture that Kingsway was known for, because it was the entrance to Vancouver," says heritage expert John Atkin.

"You had a number of really interesting drive-ins and restaurants and motels and that kind of stuff. With the city's pending wrecking of the 2400 Motel [down the street], Wally's represents the last little piece of the old Kingsway."

The city owns the 2400 Motel, which also has a remarkable neon sign. But both the 2400 and Wally's are likely to fall prey to a higher-density redevelopment of Kingsway the city calls "Norquay Village."

"There might be some token heritage there, they might save the [2400] sign in situ," Atkin says.

The Wally's site is owned by a company called West 75th Holdings, a family concern that has owned the site for five decades. Spokesman Al Gjernes says there are no plans for the site yet, but notes that "the city doesn't want any fast food restaurants there or anything automotive oriented."

Gjernes says the company owns about 300 feet of Kingsway street frontage around Wally's.

"The [Wally's] building is tired, it needs to be redone," he says.

"It just wasn't generating the economics, the return. The lands in that area are fairly valuable now."

What will become of the sign? Gjernes says the pylon it sits on is in bad shape and it would have to be replaced (on close inspection, the pylon is slightly leaning). Kim would like to donate it to a museum. Atkin thinks a creative solution would be fix it up and leave it on Kingsway, which is what Burnaby recently did with the Helen's children's clothing sign on Hastings.

"I think it should be collected [by the Vancouver Museum], or the museum should talk to the city about it being an in situ artifact," Atkin says.

"It would be in the museum collection, but it's on the streets of Vancouver. Take a lead from Burnaby, which is doing some interesting stuff."



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