Frank Di Benedetto doesn't like to make much of the fact that he
grew up in Prince George -- after all he left the city in 1972 to
pursue a successful career in the restaurant business -- but admits
his roots had something to do with opening a new hamburger outlet
in the city.
When it is opened at Westgate next to Canadian Tire on June 5, Prince George will become just the seventh Canadian city to be home to a Fatburger, behind only Calgary, Edmonton, Langley and Vancouver, where there are three of them.
"We wanted to place a Fatburger in a medium-sized city and there are a handful of them to consider," said Di Benedetto, who is the chain's Canadian franchisor. "Prince George, I suppose, got the nudge because of two factors, one, my desire to bring it here and two, because it's a great market area."
With the emphasis for many on healthy eating in this day and age, the Fatburger moniker may do more to drive diners away than bring them in. (Interestingly, Rocky Mountain Fitness is moving across Westgate to a new location next door to the Fatburger).
It's a comment Di Benedetto has heard time and again and credits the idea to one Lovie Yancey, an African-American woman who opened the first Fatburger in Los Angeles back in 1946 at a time when the term "fat" was more akin to the modern-day "phat."
"Back in 1946, the word 'fat' and 'fat cat' and 'fat city' meant that you were really happening, you had made it," he explained. "It really depicted affluence and upward mobility and success and quality.
"So when Lovie Yancey started her hamburger stand, she thought that the best name she could get was Fatburger because it depicted the times, the era."
The date 1946 clashes with the "Since 1952" on the Fatburger sign.
"When Lovie Yancey started Fatburger, she originally called it Mr. Fatburger because Lovie was involved with a Mr. Fatburger," Di Benedetto said. "In 1952, the Mr. disappeared, he left, so she took the Mr. down."
At the core of Yancey's vision was quality, cook-to-order food, a theme is continued today. Fatburger is a step up from your average fast-food joint said Di Benedetto.
"Fatburger appeals to people who are looking for quality first and price second," he said.
"When you're serving AAA-quality Alberta beef, Fatburger has the
highest-quality beef burgers of any chain in Canada. That's a fact,
we can accurately make that statement."
For those not so into beef, Fatburgers also serves turkey and veggie burgers as well as chicken sandwiches and the "Fat salad wedge." The side orders include a choice of skinny fries, gravy fries, onion rings, chili fries and chili cheese fries and the milk shakes are made with hand-scooped ice cream.
By the way, Yancey died in January at the healthy old age of 96.
Along with the food, there is atmosphere. Those who went to the original Fatburger also enjoyed some of the best music of the day as the spot became a hangout for musicians after they finished their gigs elsewhere. Wherever they congregated, a jam session was soon to follow and Yancey's diner was no different.
That legacy remains.As many as 25 people will be on the payroll for the Prince George version. "The work environment at a Fatburger is so cool and fun," Di Benedetto said. "It really is, because it's high energy, the burgers are great and the music is really cool."
The 54-year-old Di Benedetto's entrepreneurial spirit dates back to age nine when he opened a shoe-shining venture on the corner of George Street and Third Avenue. On his first day, he earned $6 charging 25 cents per job.
His career path began with a part-time position at the Spruceland McDonald's at the age of 14. There, his work ethic -- a virtue he absorbed from his cabinet-maker father -- and drive to succeed boosted him to the position of crew chief after only three months.
Upon graduating from Prince George Secondary School in 1972, he jumped at a chance to become assistant manager at a new McDonald's in downtown Vancouver, overseeing a 40-member staff.
Over the next 18 years, he rose through the ranks to become a senior executive in charge of a number of Edmonton-area operations and also took him to Montreal and Winnipeg.
After learning all he could, Di Benedetto ventured out on his own, doing consulting, opening pasta restaurants in Vancouver and fast-food outlets in shopping malls.
In 1998, he was tapped to help the owners the Ricky's All Day Grill franchise, not to be confused with Ricky's Pancake and Family restaurant on Victoria Street, reassess its franchising system. Two years later, he became president and then CEO and in 2003, he assumed majority ownership of the privately-held company.
Di Benedetto said his success with Ricky's helped him become Fatburger's Canadian franchisor in 2001. He opened the first Fatburger north of the border in 2005 under the holding company "Frankie's Burger Enterprises."
"I thought, what the heck, what better name?" he said.