Where's your favourite chip wagon? We all have one - even those of us who have sworn off French fries. Thousands of people around the world will boast that their favourite fries come from Albert's Rolling Lunch, which has been parked under the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia every summer for the past 50 years. The chip wagon is practically as famous as the twin bridges that connect Michigan and Ontario over the St. Clair River.
There was only one bridge when Albert Gendron rolled up one Saturday in the spring of 1957 and started selling his homemade French fries and hamburgers. There were line ups then and there are still line ups today to buy what many consumers claim are the best fries in the world.
Albert ran the chip wagon for 33 years, opening in mid-March, if the weather cooperated, and closing in mid-October. Remi and Joyce Laviolette bought the business from Albert's widow Lillian in 1990 and have added sausages and hot dogs to the menu. "The farmers that Albert bought his potatoes from are now retired, so we buy ours from a farm in Grand Bend," Joyce said. "They arrive here as whole potatoes. We cut them up in the truck and fry them there too."
She estimates 2,500 people a week visit Albert's Rolling Lunch to buy lunch, snacks and dinner. Some come from the other side of the world.
"We often get customers who tell us they now live in Australia or Saudi Arabia and when they knew they were coming back to Ontario for a visit they said one of the first things they wanted to do was come and get fries and a burger at our chip wagon," Joyce said. Many other customers plan their long road trips between Ontario and Michigan to include a meal at Albert's Rolling Lunch. The truck arrives under the bridge about 10:45 a.m. and leaves at 10 p.m. Most of the customers eat while sitting in their cars or on benches beside the fast-flowing St. Clair River and watch the passing ships of the world.
The 36-mile-long St. Clair River connects Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair and is one of the world's busiest shipping channels. More than 5,000 freighters a year, some of them 300 metres long, pass by Albert's Rolling Lunch. The river sees more big-ship traffic than the Suez and Panama canals combined. But no freighters, or pleasure craft, ever pull over to buy fries at Albert's Rolling Lunch. The eight-knot current and a bend just south of the bridge make this river one of the most treacherous areas on the entire St. Lawrence Seaway. It may look like a tranquil area, but there are many lost ships lying on the river bottom near the chip wagon.
The Laviolette's daughter, Suzanne, now runs the chip wagon day-to-day. Joyce says many family members and family friends have worked in the business over the years.
The first Blue Water Bridge was built over the river in 1938 and cost $3.9 million.
That bridge was twinned in 1997 with an identical-looking bridge that cost $107.5 million.
In 1938 the bridge had 60,960 crossings. Last year the twin bridges had 5.5 million vehicle crossings. That's down from 5.97 million in 2000. It's a spectacular view under the 47-metre-high bridge deck and other entrepreneurs have discovered this great location that Albert had to himself for many years.
There are two or three other chip wagons now parked each day in the parkland under the bridge. The St. Clair Parks Commission has created 17 waterfront parks along the Ontario side of the river.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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