[Spacing Vancouver is proud to present this ongoing series about how food helps define the city. Dr. Lenore Newman and Katherine Burnett look into the restaurants that represent Vancouver and how its culture has developed. Vancouver’s diverse food scene is one of its defining core defining elements. Like most cities it is often the restaurant and food establishments that drive how Vancouver’s culture is experienced by locals and outsiders alike. This series examines those restaurants that help to define and change Vancouver’s food culture along with the City’s urban development.]
From Pirate Paks to the mysterious Triple ‘O’ sauce, White Spot is as much an icon of Vancouver as Douglas Copland’s novels. Founded by Nat Bailey after a freak snow storm collapsed the roof on the Vancouver Forum and destroyed his peanut and hot dog stand, White Spot was the first drive-in restaurant in Canada. It was established in an era when ownership of personal automobiles was starting to become widespread, yet when they were still a novelty. Bailey’s timing was perfect; the original White Spot location was established in the Marpole neighbourhood, at Granville St and West 67th Ave, in 1928. Its success was tied intimately to the uniqueness of the drive-in, and the rapid growth of car ownership.
The Triple ‘O’ Burger continues to be the signature dish at White Spot, and is nearly synonymous with the restaurant. It was a popular choice at the drive-in, which reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Other restaurants opened drive-ins during this period, but White Spot was the most famous in Vancouver, and was expanding rapidly. Drive-ins were a trendy way to dine, and were particularly popular among parents with young children, and among teenagers looking for a date venue away from prying eyes. Although not to the same extent as the drive-in movie theatres also popular during this period, White Spot was known to be a make-out destination for young customers.
White Spot moved to the suburbs along with young Vancouverites starting families. The famous Pirate Pak was introduced in 1968, further developing White Spot’s reputation as a family-friendly restaurant. This meal, for children 12 and under, is served in a cardboard pirate ship, and includes a drink (with drinking straw mast), cup of ice cream, and gold-wrapped chocolate coin. The Pirate Pak was a fitting addition to the menu during an age in which White Spot had begun pursuing a retro look and a comfort-food feel.
In the 1980s the company began to pursue rapid expansion, and in the 1990s introduced franchising. Yet if anything cemented White Spot’s reputation as British Columbia’s own chain restaurant, it was Expo ’86. White Spot was the host restaurant of the BC Pavilion, an opportunity that paved the way for international franchising in the 1990s. White Spot has changed with Vancouver, but also changed Vancouver; the presence of a strong local chain has limited the penetration of global chain restaurants in the Vancouver area.
As the popularity of drive-ins waned, White Spot closed all save 12 of the drive-ins in the province. To bring the restaurant up to date with market demands, the company pursued a two-pronged strategy: dine-in locations moved upscale, while fast-food spinoffs focusing on Triple ‘O’ Burgers expanded into gas stations, convenience stores, and the PNE. The fast-food franchises were introduced onto many of the BC Ferries vessels, catering all of the major runs in the province. Unlike the retro-oriented fast-food franchises, the dine-in franchises have launched a campaign to brand themselves as being a family-friendly yet contemporary West Coast restaurant. The restaurant has updated its image with West Coast décor, executive chef Chuck Currie has introduced new menu items in order to somewhat diversify the available fare, and celebrity guest chefs have been hired to ground White Spot within Vancouver’s food scene. Despite the restaurant’s new modern look, the history of the White Spot drive-in, the Triple ‘O’ Burger, the Pirate Pak, and the introduction of Southern-style cooking to Vancouver have indelibly left their mark on the city’s food scene. And they still do car service, for those perfect summer nights.
[Katherine Burnett is a writer and researcher focusing on public policy, urban geography, and food security. She has a background in political science, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Victoria. Her current research focuses on food security and insecurity, urban governance, and the politics of the food system. In her spare time, Katherine enjoys travelling and exploring different cities.]
[Dr. Lenore Newman is the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment, and a Professor of Geography at the University of the Fraser Valley. She has a strong interest in examining the development of Canadian food culture and systems. She sits on the board of the Vancouver Farmers Market, and is passionate about food. Lenore is happiest when cooking, eating, drinking, or sharing meals with friends. Her website, sandandfeathers.com, presents her regular writing and research on all things related to food.]