A familiar smell has been greeting residents and visitors of Brantford’s downtown for over 50 years: the smell of freshly frying fries with just a hint of malt vinegar. To many locals, this is not only a staple of their routine, but engrained richly in their very identities.
As part of exploring the stories that define Downtown Brantford, I met with Barbara Wawzonek, third-generation owner of Brantford-based chip wagons Stan’s Fries. She greets me, enthusiastically, with a large plastic bag bulging with ephemera – articles, laminated photographs, and menus – all related to generations past of Stan’s. Before I can even get to any questions, she begins telling me the history of chip wagons in Brantford, and how she fits within that story.
Though it may appear as a simple chip wagon to some, to others it represents an irreplaceable staple in Brantford’s food community. Stan’s Fries is a relic of Brantford; it is not of a bygone era, but part of the city’s patchwork. It seems like every Brantford local, new and old, has a story about Stan’s Fries. For some, it is a story about the first time their parents took them to Stan’s; for others, it is that these delicious fries are a must-have to combat cravings during pregnancy. For all Brantfordians, these fries are an artifact that continues to preform our heritage.
Being new to Brantford, I ask Barbara to help me understand what others in this community alrady know: this wagon was started by her Grandfather, then expanded by her Father, and now it has ben passed down to her. She nods, affirming. Barbara’s father Stan, the company’s namesake, passed away in 2009. To my surprise, Barbara smiles and laughs to herself for a moment. “My Dad is my favourite thing to talk about. Of course I want to talk about him,” she says, her smile beaming. Without pause, she takes out a stack of newspapers adorned with the ‘Stan Wawzonek’ name and begins to spin me a tale.
“Fry wagons have a big heritage and it didn’t start with my Dad,” Barbara explains with a smile as she visibly straightens in her seat. “It was my grandfather, my ‘Dziadziu,’ who moved the family from Windsor to Brantford and bought an existing truck in 1950. Then it just stayed in the family.”
Barbara’s grandfather – Albert Wawzonek – was not solely responsible for introducing chip wagons to Brantford; he went along with friend, and competitor, Peter Ivonovic. Both were granted permission to start a chip wagon business, provided the wagons were movable, and would remain at the corners of Market Square. By 1968, there were three similar wagons owned by George Seitz.
Suburbanization and Market Day
“Before [the Market Square Mall] was there, I just remember it being a parking lot, and my first memory was of there being a fry wagon at each corner, my dad’s and George Seitz’s.” Barbara explains, “The buses sat on two sides of it, so there was no bus terminal. The buses just pulled up there. Across the street, you had the Odeon Theatre and you had the bakery and the library, everything was right there – people wanted to come. All the little shops down there – like the Record Man – it’s when people wanted to come to downtown.”
Although there was some initial backlash from local restaurateurs, claiming the wagons had an unfair advantage over the brick-and-mortar properties, there was no such feud between wagons. They worked in support of one another, often sharing supplies during large rushes.
The biggest rush of all was Market Day: “You couldn’t move in downtown Brantford on Market Day – Saturday.” Barb says with a smile, “Historically, Market Day was on a Saturday and everyone would drag their wares to the market and everyone would come and buy what they needed for the week.” Barbara says, reminiscing as she flips through photographs, “the fry wagons were there, and the guy who does ‘sausage on a bun’ was there, and the flower vendor and meat and veg and fruit. It was Market Day.”
Market Days became a thing of the past when the city, due to the increase in uptown suburbanization and the demand for indoor shopping malls, decided to build the Market Square Mall in 1986 to maintain foot traffic that had been leaving for large convenience malls at the fringes of the city. “People were starting to leave [downtown], so the idea was to do a big Eaton Centre, like Toronto, and keep the people here. Then there was the huge backlash because people don’t like change,” says Barbara, shrugging with indifference. Stan’s Fries was not deterred, moving across from the Sanderson Centre and then, when Harmony Square was built, moving again to it’s present location near the bus terminal.
Change and Preserving Heritage
I look closely at Barbara’s face at this moment: what would be a sore point for many, doesn’t seem to bother Barbara much. Things change, and while Brantford may change, Stan’s will remain the same.
In a true example of “keeping it simple,” the recipe for “The Best Fries in Canada” has not changed since its inception. According to Barbara, there is no secret: “Fresh cut potatoes, grown locally, fried in pure lard, and doused with lots of salt and cider vinegar. That’s it, that’s all.” According to Barbara, this simplicity is what keeps the Stan’s fries tasting the same, every generation. Although some may blanche at the lack of ketchup or other toppings at the fry wagon, Barb states it clear: ‘there has never been ketchup so there will never be ketchup (a tradition held by many chip wagons)’.
While by no means on hard times, gone are the days where parking lots are owned by local shop owners and a simple verbal permission or quickly drafted contract is all that was needed for a fry wagon to take up residence. Now, the majority of the lots are owned by large corporations and so the game has changed. Though it may seem disparaging to some; to Barbara, it is the power of tradition and heritage that keeps her thriving in these new conditions.
As Barbara and I start to draw our conversation to a close, I sense a mix of emotions: her nostalgia seems to bring her comfort alongside a certain sense of longing. Although her vocation can be unforgiving and difficult at times, Barbara would not want to be doing anything else. This salty, vinegar-y, crispy fry binds together not only three generations of family but, arguably, seventy (70) years Brantford itself. For Barbara, this is more than just her livelihood and more than just a bag of fries: she sees these fries as making up the very fabric of the city that belong alongside our more recognized historical institutions. We should recognize and value the relics that bind this community; even those that, at face value, may just seem like a bag of fries.