In the always-colourful early history of our community it was once written that this thriving new town of Ponoka likely had more preachers and restaurants than any town in the northwest.
With the coming of the railway and the invasion of many settler families into the area, Ponoka had been granted town status by1904, and never looked back as it rapidly progressed into the future.
As the community grew from a population of 151 in 1901 to more than 2,500 by 1951, new homes, businesses and countless amenities steadily filled the skyline, while farms and ranches flourished throughout the districts. Ponoka quickly and proudly established a reputation for friendly hospitality, as well as a great place to live or visit, and somewhere everyone would be treated to a good hearty meal with all the trimmings. The best of the homemade vittles were usually shared at early fairs, picnics, auctions, harvest hoedowns, and special events, but it wasn’t long before many fine restaurants were popping up all over town.
The earliest of hospitality spots, such as F.H. Steele’s Ponoka House, featured board and lodging for $3.50 a week, while the classic Royal and Leland Hotels had stylish comfortable rooms and served the finest of liquid refreshments along with entertainment and treats in their saloons. From 1913 to 1920, Morris Robert’s Alberta Temperance Hotel down the street served no liquor, but offered exquisite accommodations and fine food until a late-night fire destroyed it all.
Early entrepreneur Land Headley added a new flare to the mix in 1911 with the opening of his restaurant/pool hall, and then James Jones offered a restaurant with an ice-cream parlour at 5008 50th Avenue. Jack Few, who had enlisted the fabulous culinary skills of Mrs. Min Siefert to oversee the menu, operated the first of many decades of cafes in the Leland Hotel. The stately Royal Hotel always offered a downstairs café to serve all their guests and some of the proprietors included Adolph and Rose Kalwitt, Len Lea, and Bud Grant, who in the late 1940s would introduce an exciting new era of hotel patronizing.
In 1967 the diminutive Herb Johnston purchased the Royal Hotel and continued to operate the historical tavern and restaurant for many years. Who will ever forget those legendary bartenders such as Frank Volk and Mickey Hrycyk?
Mah Poy Sing, also known as James Mah Poy, immigrated from China to Canada in 1902, then worked in various jobs throughout British Columbia and Alberta before operating a restaurant in Coronation. Mah Poy’s wife, Liang Shi, joined him in 1913, and after settling in Ponoka they would raise six children and also excelled in the restaurant business. In 1928 the family opened the very popular and fancy Union Café next to the Bank of Commerce on Railway Street with Jimmy and Liang at the helm until 1943, when they passed it on to their son, Hong and his wife, Lorna.
In 1953 Bud Grant purchased the building from the Mah Poy family, transformed the building in the ultramodern Bud’s Fine Foods, which he would later sell to Jim Telfer.
The distinction of opening the first outside take-out food service or drive-thru restaurant likely went to George Harvey at his popular A & W franchise, where Super Foods is now located. Then of course there was the congenial Gordon MacLeod, who served sizzling fries and creamy shakes that were to die for from his infamous Poor Gordies’ Drive-In for more years than this old scribe can remember.
Other longstanding café traditions that had their early beginnings in Ponoka were the Club Café, the New Spot, the Park Café, and the tiny but always lively Sunny Spot. Mah Chew operated the Club Café in the early 1920s in the Leland Hotel and then built a magnificent restaurant across the street, which they operated until the 1940s. The New Spot, which was operated by Harry Wall and his wife, was actually shaped like a hamburger, and was one of our early franchised restaurants.
Phyl Whitman opened a café in the Bus Depot in 1938, Mrs. Lloyd Schram offered the first coffee shop in a garage (Highway Garage) during the war years, and the very ambitious Jimmy Mark would later open the area’s first 24-hour garage, restaurant, and motel along Highway 2a just south of Ponoka.
Another flamboyant pair of restaurateurs were Howard Lee and Hong Mah, who together took over the Leland Hotel Café in 1964, then in 1971 erected the new Valley Inn Cafe on the north side of Chipman Avenue. This spacious restaurant featured a coffee shop and dining room, did a roaring business in Chinese takeout, and has continued to operate under several owners for many years.
Milestone changes in the restaurant industry
It is really hard to believe that Roy Allen mixed up his first batch of creamy root beer in 1919, sold those big frosty jugs for a nickel, then took on a partner named Frank Wright in 1922 and opened their first A & W stand in Sacramento, which featured outside service courtesy of ‘tray boys.’ While fast food pioneer Ray Croc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1954, we have long since zoomed into a hectic culinary world that now features countless delightful adventures and tasty choices of slow-cooked, fast or frozen food treats from throughout the world. Whether it is eat-in, take-out, or drive-thru, there are of course so many more food service outlets now available to all ages of our growing and fussy populace.
Hopefully the proud traditions of quality and hospitality have and will always remain the same.
On the other hand, thank goodness most of us can hopefully still find just a little time to enjoy healthy school lunches, the traditional picnic, and a casual home-cooked meal with family and friends — at least once in a while.