They came on foot, they came on bikes, they came by car, and some even came in their Dad’s old farm truck. They all had one purpose in mind. One destination in mind. Meet the girls, or meet the guys, giggle and gossip and enjoy a snack at the same time.
All the action was at Bud’s Fine Foods on Railway Street. And so it was in small town Alberta around 1953 to 1963, as well countless other towns almost anywhere. But this was Ponoka, our home town where we acted out our own version of “American Graffiti.”
Bud’s Fine Foods was situated next door to the original Canadian Bank of Commerce (CIBC). It occupied the space of a former Chinese restaurant, which was located on the bottom floor of an old, two story brick and wood building and had enjoyed a long and colorful history of fine and friendly dining dating way back to 1915 and known for 38 years as the Union Café.
By contrast, the brick-constructed bank was an architectural stand-out for a small town, reminiscent of classical bank design of the era.
It’s prominence on Railway Street presented a formal image intent on making a customer feel humbled and in awe of the financial power it represented. Bud’s, on the other hand, would take on a whole new look and name when it was purchased by entrepreneur Bud Grant in 1953.
This posh new eatery and social ‘hot spot’ instantly became a busy and welcoming place filled with happy, casual, chatty town folk enveloped by the aroma of great food, “wake-me-up” coffee, sweet desserts and yes, cigarette smoke. Ahhh, sensory delights of the good old days. This was a place for sharing good times with good friends telling good stories, as well as some real tall tales.
Bud Grant, from our youthful perspective, seemed to be the efficient, business-like and somewhat aloof restaurateur who skillfully oversaw the whole operation, including keeping an eye on his sometimes vivacious young waitresses from flirting with the patrons. That would be us.
He wanted his café to be the number one eating place in the whole town and district. It seemed he succeeded.
Every day, especially at coffee break or lunch time, local businessmen would be going in and out of the back door to enjoy the comradery of fellow entrepreneurs. Here they’d make deals, discuss politics or sports, gripe about all levels of government or share names of local “credit risks” and “ne’er-do-wells” who may have skipped out on their debts, bounced cheques or were caught shop-lifting. Sort of a home-grown credit bureau.
Business from the established, responsible adults paid Bud’s bills, his staff and turned a profit. Our youthful, noisy and mischievous crowd was a different story.
We came for the fun more than the food – except the chocolate cake. Who could deny that Bud’s served the finest, decidedly decadent chocolate cake between here and heaven? With the magic of his soft ice-cream machine, “ala mode” was the only way to go.
A few of the stern, matronly waitresses could get rather cranky when our youthful exuberance got a bit loud. Luckily, a few young “lovelies” on staff were more accommodating and on the sly would even add an extra swirl or two of the ice cream if you winked at them.
Of course, the burgers, french fries with loads of ketchup, Coca-Cola and hot chocolate in winter were like the staples of life for us. After a payday from our part time jobs, we’d often splurge a bit especially if we had a date or a prospect in the next booth to impress.
On pleasant summer evenings, there would always be teens gathered on the sidewalk outside the café, with boys watching girls and girls watching boys as the lucky guys with cars would keep circling the block in hopes of “snagging” a date.
This was the place to see and be seen – sort of a fashion “runway” with the girls showing off their latest beehive hairdos and stylish outfits, and the boys having their hair slicked back with Brylcream and almost reeking of Old Spice after shave.
I don’t recall this as being an assembly of the most scholarly Ponoka teens, since studies were often neglected in favor of not missing out on the weekend action at this “social muster point”. Recent grads with jobs (often at the Ponoka Mental Hospital) or early school drop-outs among the older guys generally sported the coolest rides, or “chick magnets” in today’s parlance.
Some were lowered and often had little fuzz balls adorning the inside edge of their windshields and “necker nobs” on their steering wheels, along with flashy Whitewall tires and loud, dual Walker mufflers, and all were like bait. When one of these cruisers would give a couple of hard jabs on the accelerator, a whole chorus of cheers hoots and wolf whistles would erupt.
Without these treats for the eyes and ears, you most likely were driving the family sedan. Not cool. Farm boys in their Dad’s pickups, perhaps with assorted tools and equipment or even a straw bale or two did not impress this audience either.
While Bud was generally happy for any dollar spent in his establishment, even if he had to accept that his café was in many ways the local teen club or hang-out, his patience did have its limits.
Mischievous pranks like unscrewing the lids of the sugar server, salt shaker or ketchup bottle just enough to have them fall off when the next customer tried to use them, would easily get you ushered out the door. Or, trying to jam the jukeboxes to keep playing for free would have the same result. Skipping out on your bill was a whole different matter. This was stealing money from Bud and that would not go well.
One account shared concerned two local boys who mixed in with other customers leaving, but sort of conveniently “forgot” to pay their bill. Not a large bill, but the principle of the matter is what counts here.
Upon Bud being alerted to this, he went to their most likely other “haunts” such as Chris’s Pool Hall, the Capitol Theatre or the arena in search of these rascals and his search paid off. These local lads were then escorted back to the restaurant where Bud gave them the option of scrubbing the greasy kitchen walls or having them reported to the local police. “Smart choice boys. Keep scrubbing until this place shines.”
As always happens, time passes. School days are over, and youth grows into adulthood. Real life kicks in, and many move away from their beloved home town. Some never return while some stay and advance to more responsible roles in life.
And Bud moves on as well. The building changes hands, a new restaurant venture moves in under the ownership of Jim Telfer (Telfer’s Café) and then, some years later, the building is torn down to make room for a new and modern style Bank of Commerce.
The most memorable days of Bud’s Fine Foods gradually faded away, while Mr. Grant moved on and took his skills to the next level in the hotel business, graduating from operating the Royal Hotel then later the Crossroads Hotel in Calgary and then even bigger ventures in the Vancouver area.
And these hometown “scribes” of our childhood Ponoka also moved on in life. But, they are glad to have had the privilege of experiencing this most enjoyable chapter of life and are happy to share their personal memories of Bud’s Fine Foods, where “a good time was had by all.”