[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]itting on a high stool at the counter of Dic Ann’s original Pie IX location, it’s clear that this place is a true blue Montreal institution. The current owners have done a fantastic job with the upkeep, and the decor and atmosphere haven’t changed since this original location first opened its doors in 1954. If you’ve ever tried their unconventional, delicious burgers, you’ll know that they’re what have kept people coming back. With a thin, high-quality beef patty, flattened and toasted buns that withstand the generous scoop of spicy meat sauce perfectly, and a portion of crispy fries, it’s the perfect fast-food meal.
We sat down with Anthony Zammit and Delbina Potenza, the grandchildren of the famous Dic and Ann. They’re the third generation of the family to run the business, which has expanded to 13 locations all around Montreal. These burgers are so good that they give life to those who eat them; Anthony and Delbina reminisce about a chihuahua that lived to 21 eating only Dic Ann’s burgers, and even more fondly, of their grandfather sitting at this very counter at 91, enjoying his creation.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
AZ: We’re the grandchildren of Dic and Ann who originally started this little business in ’54. We’re the third generation to run the operation, expanding and trying to keep the quality high and keep their legacy going.
DP: That’s the motivation, to take care of what our grandparents worked so hard to build.
AZ: It’s the classic “they came from nothing”. When they started, it was a little moveable food shack. He only had enough money to sell a dozen burgers a day. They were sleeping on cardboard boxes in their roulot. To see it go from that to where it is today, with the people that really love us and respect the burgers, it’s something. It’s very touching. It’s personal.
So what’s your grandparents’ story?
AZ: My grandfather was from Utica, NY, and my grandmother from Montreal. She was an accordionist traveling on navy ships entertaining the troops. My grandfather worked as a mechanic. Her room needed a light bulb fixed, so he went to help. They always said, “a light bulb went off, and that’s it, the rest is history”. He fell in love with her and she left her musician life to come to Montreal and open up a burger shack in the freezing cold.
He had this idea, this concept that he dreamt up, and that’s it. For the burger sauce, they sat with some friends with four different recipes of sauce on the table, in the apartment above this restaurant where they (and we) lived. They had their friends try them out, and there was a unanimous decision in favour of the sauce that we still make the exact same way 60 years later.
DP: Hot, fresh off the grill.
AZ: Just cheese and meat sauce. You can get other condiments if you want, but there’s something about just the cheese, meat, bread and sauce that works perfectly together.
The popsicle sticks that come with the burger — who came up with that?
AZ: Oh, we don’t even know! It’s one of the mysteries about this place. We don’t question the stick. In French it’s a souleveur du hamburger.
DP: Literally, hamburger picker-upper.
AZ: People think it was designed to stir coffee but no, it’s a souleveur du hamburger. We’ve seen it all. Some people flip the burger and eat it with their hands, some people stab it in the centre and eat it like a popsicle, some ask for a fork and knife.
Who flattened the bun? Whose idea was that?
AZ: That was my grandfather’s idea. He knew he wanted a fast-food restaurant, which is why he came up with the thin burger. It was easy and quick to cook on the grill. He said it looked weird having a flat patty and a big bun, so he said why don’t we toast the bun down and do something different. With the sauce, if you had a fluffy bun, it’d get all soggy and fall apart, so toasting the buns would help them absorb the sauce better and make it easier to eat.
So, it goes without saying that you grew up with a passion for burgers?
AZ: Oh yeah, it’s in our blood.
DP: Everyone in the family, even our dogs. We had a Chihuahua that lived to 21 that only ate Dic Ann’s burgers. He would refuse dog food. He lived upstairs from the restaurant, so it was pretty convenient.
AZ: Yeah. I’m the oldest on my side and [Delbina] is the oldest on her side, and within days of us being born our parents were back in action, with us in cribs in the back.
DP: We grew up in these rooms.
AZ: The Wallyburger is named after Wally, he’s been with us for 50 years. In honour of his 50th year with us we named the burger after him, and it’s actually one of the best selling items.
DP: Every time he hears “un Wallyburger, quatre Wallyburgers” he gets so excited, he does a little dance.
AZ: He comes up to the people to ask how they like it. It’s on the bigger side. People think we only have small burgers, but it’s not just a single, flat burger. You can order 2, 3 patties on a burger, and it gets really filling. Or you can just get two single burgers- everyone has their own way here.
DP: Definitely spaghetti; they were Italian. A lot of spaghetti sauce. They used to cook the sauce upstairs, just made in spaghetti pots, alternating between Dic Ann’s hamburger sauce and spaghetti sauce for the family. The pots were constantly in rotation between the two recipes.
AZ: I wish I had grown up in the prime years, when this was the only location. The sheer number of people stopping traffic on Pie IX Blvd to come grab a burger — they’d sell 400 dozen burgers in a day. It was chaotic but so fun.
DP: Our dads would do push-ups before starting a shift to warm up, because they couldn’t just go in cold.
AZ: It was insane. There are 16 stools and there’d be 2 or 3 people lined up behind each person waiting to be served. If you stopped to smoke a cigarette, back when you could smoke inside, the waiting customers would say “excuse me, if you’re not eating another one, get out.” We wouldn’t even have to tell the people the rules — the old customers would train the new ones.
AZ: And, oh, the number of famous butts that have sat on these stools. Hockey players of course, and even Céline Dion used to come in and sit on the end. Everyone! People from all walks of life come in and enjoy the burger.
DP: It makes us really proud. We’re so fortunate to have our customers. We keep them as happy as possible and stick to our roots. We’re blessed as Montrealers to have such good food joints and people who support them.
There’s very few classic burger joints left that are so accessible and so tasty.
AZ: Keep it simple and delicious and cheap for the customer — that’s always been the philosophy. Even at 91, our grandfather would sit at the counter with his customers and enjoy a burger as if no time as passed at all.
If you want to find our more about Dic Ann’s, check out their website or drop in for a burger and a chat!