Burgers 'n' shakes built one man's dream

Minimum wages not on the menu at this drive-in

Excerpts from an Business Edge article by Gyle Konotopetz


At noon, there is the usual traffic jam around Peters' Drive-In as hungry motorists clamour for a taste of Calgary's most famous burgers and shakes.

Business is booming -- Peters' sold 4,000 milkshakes in one day this past summer -- and the cash registers are singing louder than the resident gulls that cry for their french fries.

But it's business as usual for the unpretentious architect of one of Calgary's most remarkable small- business success stories.

Gus Pieters, who whipped up his first shake back in '62, simply shrugs his shoulders when pressed about his recipe for success.

At 72, the old-school Pieters continues to run the business from a 'corner' office that is really just a modest desk in the back of the kitchen within flipping distance of the grill.

The desktop looks naked without a computer. Pieters, who emigrated from the Netherlands in 1954, is an ordinary man with an extraordinary business who takes his coffee in a styrofoam cup and pays generous wages by fast-food industry standards.

He prefers to communicate the old-fashioned way, chewing the fat with employees, suppliers and customers at his home away from home on the TransCanada Highway.



Photo: Larry MacDougal, Business Edge

Gus Pieters once had to borrow $25 to fill an empty till -- how times have changed.

On this day, he delights in regaling a visitor with a knee-slapping yarn about an overweight doctor who advises a patient to quit smoking. 

"Yeah, and I asked the doctor if he was going to quit eating," cackles the boss, eyes twinkling and a cigarette dancing on his lip.


1. What did you do in the Netherlands before emigrating to Canada in 1954? 

"I was a pastry man and a baker. That's where I learned the food business. The people I worked for were very particular and I had a good boss. He was a very, very, very tough guy. You had to have consistency and learn to do it right."


2. So is consistency the key to your success?

"There are many things, but consistency is very important. If you bake one cake and it turns out wonderful and the next 10 are the pits, what are you going to do? It has to be good all the time. You should be able to come here all the time and have a good milkshake. We have to aim for that. If we get too busy, the shakes can get a little too thin, but you do your best."


3. How much money did you have when you arrived in Canada?

"Two dimes. My first job was pulling nails at a construction site. I wanted to save money for a business. That was always my dream -- to be my own boss. When I came here, I didn't like it at first. It looked like a bare little city in the middle of the Prairie. I was not impressed at first. I left my friends and family behind. But after a year, I became accustomed to it. I didn't speak much English, so that made it tougher. Now I have so many friends. Friends are everything. Without friends, life is hardly worth living."

4. What motivated you to start Peters' Drive-In in 1964?

"I never wanted to own a franchise, but I wanted to own my own business and just be my own boss. I wanted a business in my own field. It's very important when you do something you do it in your own field. If you take the five best business people in town and give them a ladies' dress shop, how far are you going to get? They have to buy everything themselves and they have to advertise everything. To me, that's the most difficult thing of all, the ladies' dress shop. If you know nothing about the restaurant business, you depend on your chef. But if the chef quits, everything falls apart."


5. What do you remember about the early years of the business?

"It was tough, really tough. I had to borrow $25 to put in a till because I didn't have any money left. My wife didn't have any money to buy groceries. I told her she had to wait until we made some money here. I started the business with $15,000. I worked at Mobil Oil for five years way up in the Arctic, and that's where I made the money to start the business."

6. What's the best advice you can offer a young entrepreneur in the fast-food business?

"You have to make a sacrifice if you want to be successful. If you have a dream, you have to sacrifice a lot and save your money before you get started. If you don't save your money, you'll never reach your dream. And you have to know your business and be willing to put in the time. For two years, I don't think I ever had a day off, but I didn't mind. I loved it. If you want something bad enough, you have to pay the price."


7. Are you a tough customer when it comes to food?

"Sure, it has to be right. That's why I have the best products. It's all from Heinz, Kraft (Food) and Dairyland. I don't quarrel about price, as long as it's good. We serve real whipping cream. I was in a Vancouver hotel and they gave me imitation whipping cream on a pastry. The stupid thing was about $8 and I sent it back. I said: "I don't like it and I know a hamburger joint that serves real whipping cream. I sent it back and said: 'Let the chef eat it.'"


8. What's your view of the health controversies in the fast-food industry?

"I can only talk about our food, and our food is very healthy. It's pure meat, we use fresh fruit in our milkshakes and we use the best (cooking) oil in the world. Maybe the onion rings are not so good, I don't know. My mom and dad ate food like this their whole lives, and they lived to be over 90. We don't have salads because of the preservatives in the produce from the stores. Horses won't eat those carrots."


9. You've had some employees with you for as long as 30 years. What's your secret to employee loyalty?

"We have a family setting here. The most important thing is to treat your staff like human beings. You remember that they have lives too. If you come in here and say no more coffee breaks, no more lunches free, no more cigarette breaks, no more trading (shifts), no more special days off and you're one of those really, really tough guys, you'd lose the staff. We always have a laugh here at somebody's expense. And sometimes it's at my expense."


10. Do you pay minimum wage like many fast-food businesses?

"No one makes minimum wage. We pay them a lot better here. We have people here who have been here a long time who are very well paid. I won't say how much they make, but there are people who make maybe four times the minimum wage."


11. Do you lose sleep over what McDonald's and Wendy's are doing?

"Don't you think I have enough to worry about right here? I don't even think about what other people are doing. I've never walked into a McDonald's in my life. What good will that do me? What am I going to go in there for?"


12. What changes have you made in your business in the 28 years?

"We've changed nothing. We do it the same way as 40 years ago. We started out serving burgers and shakes and we still have basically the same menu. I don't need a chicken burger. If we have success with what we have, why change? If I had to change, I would. But I don't have to, so I don't -- at least not yet."


13. How important is it for you to contribute to the community by supporting charities through your business?

"It's very important. But sometimes you have to stop it because there's so many people calling. And you get the odd con artist calling and asking if you'll support a Halloween party. I asked if it was for kids. They said it was for grownups. I said: 'Make your own fun.' Sure, we do a lot, but I don't feel good if I'm bragging about it."


IN PROFILE: Gus Pieters

* Born/raised/age: Raalte, Netherlands;

* Family: Wife Barbara, four children.

* Career: Pieters has operated Peters' Drive-In fast-food business since 1962. Prior to emigrating to Canada in 1954, Pieters worked as a baker and pastry chef. Peters' has 80 employees at its only location.

* What's shakin'? Peters' Drive-In set a company record by selling 4,000 milkshakes in one day this past


* Passions: Farming, horseback riding.