Manitoba

'They stole the recipe, which is good': How the Fat Boy burger became a Winnipeg icon

There's something about a beef patty topped with mayo, mustard, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and — of course — a hefty ladle of meat sauce that Winnipeggers can't seem to resist. But tracing the origins of the Fat Boy — which can be found in various iterations in many Winnipeg restaurants — is a tall order.

Junior's founder Gus Scouras says the basic recipe for the Fat Boy, if not the name, came from his restaurants

Variations on the iconic Fat Boy are everywhere in Winnipeg now, but tracing the burger's origins can get a bit messy. (Cory Funk/CBC)

There's no question that the iconic Fat Boy burger has firmly lodged itself in the hearts — and arteries — of Winnipeggers over the decades. 

There's something about a beef patty topped with mayo, mustard, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and — of course — a hefty ladle of meat sauce that Winnipeggers can't seem to resist. 

But tracing the origins of the sandwich — which can be found in various iterations in many Winnipeg restaurants — is a tall order.

"A lot of guys worked for me and they stole the recipe," says Winnipeg's Gus Scouras, who — along with his late brothers, George and John Scouras — is behind some of Winnipeg's most legendary burger joints.

George Scouras, pictured here in an archival photo, helped his brother Gus run Junior's. (Photo submitted by Demetris Scouras)

"Which is good. I wish them all the luck. They're doing well." 

Scouras told CBC News that the basic recipe for the Fat Boy — if not the name — came from his restaurants.

The story begins in Greece, where Scouras, now 83, grew up. The Second World War, and the civil war that followed, ravaged the country's economy when he was young.

"It was not a very nice place to be," Scouras said. 

In 1950, 14-year-old Scouras left Greece with his older brother, George. They arrived in Thunder Bay, Ont., where their uncle owned the Coney Island Restaurant.

Gus landed a job in the kitchen and learned to make the meat sauce his uncle slathered on hotdogs and spaghetti. 

A couple of years later, the brothers left Thunder Bay in search of better work in Winnipeg. 

But things weren't easy there either. 

From the prep line to the DEW Line

In Winnipeg, Gus worked odd jobs like shining shoes and scrubbing dishes, from which he only earned about $14 a week.

"It was kind of rough," Scouras said.

But he caught a break in 1955, when he landed a gig working on King William Island (now a part of Nunavut) on the DEW, or Distant Early Warning, Line — a series of radar stations running from Alaska to Greenland, designed to detect a Soviet invasion from the north.

It paid well, and after working for about a year, he had earned enough to move back to Winnipeg and open a small but mighty burger restaurant on Main Street and Broadway, which he called Junior's.

His brother George came on board to help him run the restaurant.

"We thought I was the junior of the two of us, so we just chose the name Junior's," he said.

That was where Gus and George got the idea to serve up a burger slathered with chili sauce. They called it the Lotta Burger, as in "that's a lotta burger."

An archival photo of the Big Boy restaurant on Winnipeg's Portage Avenue, which was opened by brothers Gus and George Scouras. (Submitted by Demitris Scouras)

It was an instant success, and a year later, they opened another spot on Portage. This time, they named it after George. 

"We called it the Big Boy because my brother was the big guy, the fat guy," he said.

In keeping with the theme, the Big Boy called its version of the Lotta Burger "the Big Boy Burger."

The Big Boy restaurant became a regular haunt for hungry youngsters, and plastered patrons looking to grab a snack after the bar.

As Gus and George became more established, their younger brother, John Scouras, moved from Greece and joined the business. 

Good boys make Fat Boys

While Gus takes full credit for being the first Winnipegger to unite the burger patty with its sloppy soul mate, he admits that neither he nor his brothers coined the term "Fat Boy."

Scouras said some of his former employees at the Big Boy — many of them Greek immigrants themselves — went on to start their own burger joints, and took the patty-meat sauce combo with them, giving it new names in the process.

Big Boy customers were known to casually call the restaurant's burger "the Fat Boy," and Scouras suspects Big Boy alumni who went on to other eateries wanted people to know the meaty marriage was on their menu — but didn't want to steal the Big Boy name. 

He said he didn't know for sure who first labelled it the Fat Boy, but offered a guess — Mike Lambos, who bought the Dairi-Wip Drive-In on Marion Street in 1959, after working at the Big Boy.

"He's a good boy. I wish him very well," Scouras said.

Mike Lambos, owner of the Dairi-Wip Drive-In, says he gave the Fat Boy its name. (Google Street View)

As it turns out, his hunch was right. 

Lambos, 78, still owns the Dairi-Wip and works there three days a week. 

"I was the first one," Lambos told CBC News. "After I left and started my own, that's when I called it Fat Boy."

And the name stuck. 

As Greek immigrants like Mrs. Mike's owner Steve Mikos came to Winnipeg looking for something better, the Fat Boy recipe was a tried and true way to get ahead. 

Mikos bought Mrs. Mike's, on Tache Avenue, in 1969, which has since joined the ranks of Winnipeg's legendary burger joints. 

By the time he opened, leaving the Fat Boy off the menu wasn't an option.

"It seemed like everybody in the city had it," Mikos said. 

The fat boy formula

Gus Scouras also opened the famous RedTop drive-in on St. Mary's Road with partners in 1960, and it stayed in the family until it sold earlier this year. 

He's retired now and has outlived his two brothers, but the community that grew from their restaurants remains.

John Scouras's son, Demitris Scouras, grew up helping sling Lotta Burgers at the RedTop, and saw what happened when other Greek families came to town and started serving up their own Fat Boys. 

"They all copied the same formula," Demitris said.

"It was basically put up four walls, put up a few tables and use every inch of the restaurant.… They figured as long as they cooked good food, they would never go hungry." 

And it worked.

Gus Scouras opened the RedTop Drive Inn on St. Mary's with partners in 1960. It was one of the many city restaurants to serve a variation on the Fat Boy. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

As more burger joints popped up, they would all look out for each other, as long as they didn't open right next door. 

Eventually, Demitris's father, John Scouras, started a Greek camp for kids, and would go around to restaurants like Dairi-Wip, asking them all to chip in for meals. One would supply the chicken, the other buns, and so on. 

At the time, Demitris just enjoyed the food, but now, looking back, he sees that his dad and uncles were building much more than a business.

"It was being part of a community," Demitris said.

"That's the biggest lesson I learned growing up in an iconic restaurant in the city of Winnipeg."

About the Author

Cory Funk

Associate Producer

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Cory cut his teeth as a business and politics reporter in Halifax before moving home to join CBC Manitoba's current affairs team. He's also lived, worked and studied in Ottawa and St. John's. You can email him at cory.funk@cbc.ca or message him on Twitter @CoryJFunk.

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