By Cole Brocksom
A small orange hamburger shop called Johnny’s sits nestled between towering high rises and strip malls at the corner of Victoria Park Avenue and Sheppard Avenue East. Dwarfed by the Shoppers Drug Mart next to it, the landscape around Johnny’s is almost unrecognizable from what it was when Johnny’s opened in 1967. Back then, the only other thing around was the drive-in movie theatre across the street. More than 50 years later, the drive-in is long gone, but Johnny’s still stands.
Tasos Sklavos, the owner, has been working at Johnny’s for 20 years now. He and his brother took over from their father and uncles who started the business back in 1967. Johnny’s hasn’t changed much in the 52 years it’s been open. They’ve had the same supplier for 34 years, making them the supplier’s oldest customer. Tasos tells me that you can’t find the grill they use to cook their burgers on the market anymore, and that they’ve had it for 30 years or maybe more.
But that’s what makes Johnny’s Hamburgers special: While the world changes around it, Johnny’s is keeping the tradition of the old school burger joint going. Some of the city’s older restaurants have died out, and there are some newer places that try to replicate that retro feel, but Johnny’s has established itself as a living part of Toronto’s restaurant history.
“We try to keep it as it was originally supposed to be. Even the way we serve the burgers,” Tasos says.
The menu is simple and classic, and the main attraction is the burgers. After they come off the grill, a line cook will be happy to add your choice of toppings, which include ketchup and mustard, relish, pickles, tomatoes, and most importantly, chopped onions.
“One day, we tried to give [the onions] sliced, and the customers didn’t like it!” Tasos said. “It’s just a simple thing, right? But slightly, slightly, the taste is different, they say.” Tasos says that he only switched to sliced onions for a month, changing back to chopped after customers complained.
“People like it old school.”
Some of the customers have been coming to Johnny’s since they were kids. Their parents took them to Johnny’s, and now they come back with their own kids, bringing in a third generation of customers.
“Tasos is like family to me,” says Pavlos Balektzian, a student at George Brown and former employee at Johnny’s. Balektzian worked at Johnny’s for three years, but before he was an employee he had been a customer since he moved to Toronto from Greece in 2013.
“When I moved to Toronto, I happened to live in that area, so I used to go there to grab food, and we used to talk about the Greek league of soccer,” Balektzian says. One day, Balektzian asked Tasos if he needed any help at the restaurant, and soon enough he was working at Johnny’s.
“During the summer is super busy,” Balektzian says. “You get to see all types of people. There’s so many people coming in talking about how they used to go there 30, 40 years ago.”
“They come over here, eat a burger, so they remember the good old days when they were teenagers,” Taso says “they see that coming here, pretty much nothing’s changed here.”
While Johnny’s stands still in time, the restaurant business around it has changed.
“Everything is much more competitive now than before,” says Brian Morris, manager of the Fran’s on College Street.
Fran’s is another restaurant staple in Toronto, helping to keep the city’s old school diner culture alive. The College Street location is the oldest Fran’s still in operation. The first Fran’s restaurant opened in 1940, with the College Street location being the third restaurant established in 1950. But two original locations closed in 2001 after running into financial difficulties.
“Maybe they just couldn’t find the right people,” Morris said. “Maybe they lost interest. It could be any number of things. But if you don’t put the effort into something, it’s going to go down, you’ve got to keep up.”
Other long-standing Toronto favourites have been forced close down over the years. A restaurant called ‘the Q’ closed last December that had been serving Etobicoke for 37 years. Katz’s Deli on Dufferin is set to close at the end of May after 49 years. In January, a fire claimed the Detroit Eatery, a 70-year-old diner on the Danforth. Each of these closures was met with an outpouring of community mourning for the beloved restaurants.
“There’s a lot of challenges running restaurants,” Morris says. “But there’s always going to be challenges. And then the reverse is true, too. I’ve always gone with the mindset of prepare for the unexpected, and that’s always been the form that’s worked for me.”
“As long as you’re here, we’ll be here,” Tasos says. “Because people give us the power to continue. Without their support, we can’t do anything. This makes us happy, so we’re willing to go as many years as we can.”
Tasos plucks the plastic order-number cards from the cardboard box sitting on top of the glass counter at Johnny’s Hamburgers. He shuffles through them, putting them in order, and returns them to the matching cardboard box next to the cash register.
The white tiles of the kitchen walls reflect the fluorescent lights buzzing on the ceiling. A radio in the backhums Broken by Lovelytheband into the now growing bustle of the restaurant.
It’s 12 o’clock on Monday, March 4th. Lunch time. Tasos leans back on the island in the kitchen, and looks up, greeting the next customer with a smile. He’s comfortable, with the confidence of someone who’s been doing this a long time.
With his left hand planted on the counter, Tasos taps the order into the cash register with his right. After paying, the customer moves to the side, making room for the line forming behind him. Loose coins rattle in the hands of one customer, already counting his change. The woman in front of him glances up at the menu, and orders three burgers to bring to her family waiting outside.
Steam hisses from the fryer as one of the cooks lowers another batch of French fries into the oil.
Tasos hands each customer a number card, and marks their number on the order slip with a blue crayola marker. The line cook looks down at the order slips laid out on the counter, adjusting them with his fingertips, and returns to the kitchen.
“How are you, my friend?” Tasos asks, laughing, upon seeing a familiar customer.
“Number 2, please,” A tattooed employee calls from behind the glass countertop. He looks out smiling to the restaurant, ready to add the customer’s choice of toppings to the next sandwich.
The paper bag crinkles as the burgers are placed inside.The employee folds the end of the bag to ensure no spillage, and hands the bag to the customer with a “thank you.”
50 years ago, it was just Johnny’s and the drive-in movie theatre. 20 years ago, when Tasos started, there were 4 gas stations surrounding it, one on each corner. Now there’s office buildings, strip malls, and condos all within a stone’s throw from the unchanging orange burger joint. But Tasos says that the one thing that’s never going to change at Johnny’s is how they treat the customers.