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For the love of burgers

With the backing of Morell Credit Union, Quentin Gillis and Tanya O’Brien have become Prince Edward Island’s most acclaimed purveyors of burger and fries.

Prince Edward Islanders might be partial to potatoes but they are even bigger fans of burgers. So much so, the province is home to a wildly popular, month-long festival called PEI Burger Love.

“I don’t think anyone counts calories on PEI in April,” says Quentin Gillis, the co-owner of Holy Cow Burgers & Wings and a member of Morell Credit Union (1,900 members, $36 million in assets).

This year, 85 restaurants participated in Burger Love. Holy Cow’s Mr. Irresisti-Bull — a juicy eight-ounce PEI beef patty stacked between a hand-rolled potato-onion bun spread with three house-made sauces and oozing local Gouda cheese — was one of the bestsellers. Between Holy Cow’s 100-seat restaurant and its roaming Wicked Fries food truck, Gillis and his 35 employees sold a whopping 9,338 burgers that month, or more than 300 a day.

And to think that just four years ago, Gillis and his wife Tanya O’Brien were ready to give up on their struggling food truck—until the support of a small community and its credit union turned their business around. “We nearly lost our minds,” says Gillis, recalling that first brutally slow summer in Charlottetown. He and O’Brien, on maternity leave from her full-time job with the provincial government, had plenty of experience, both having worked in the food-and-beverage service industry since high school. And their hand-cut fries were pedigreed (their potatoes come from the same farm that supplies the Five Guys franchisees in the Maritimes and Montreal). But their food truck was stationed in a downtown parking lot that was hard to access, lacked curb appeal and couldn’t lure enough customers to make ends meet.

The next summer, they decided to give Wicked Fries on last shot, moving to the village of Morell, with a population of 300, where O’Brien grew up and had family.

Location, as they say, is everything. Wicked Fries was now parked next to a picturesque, meadow-fringed section of the province-wide Confederation Trail. It also helped that they were on the main highway and there weren’t many other places to eat on the drive from Charlottetown to Souris. “Our sales just took off, by about 600 percent,” says Gillis. “People were coming from two hours away.”

After a rock-star summer, Morell Credit Union manager Sherri Clark asked if they would be interested in staying. She offered them a six-month lease on a bricks-and-mortar restaurant that had been sitting empty for more than a year. “It would have been easy to say no and take the winter off,” Gillis recalls. “But after all the support we got from the community, it didn’t feel right to pack up and say, ‘See you next year.’ And the plan they proposed left us with very little risk.”

“The credit union helped us put the deal together and we obviously had to show them our numbers. None of them could believe what they were seeing.” – Quentin Gillis

Winter is typically a tough season for any restaurant. To Gillis’s surprise, their revenues kept growing. Holy Cow obviously had the advantage of being the only restaurant in town. Gillis didn’t take the situation for granted, giving back to community as much goodwill as he received by using small local suppliers whenever possible for seafood, beef, potatoes, bread, milk, cheese and even beer.

In April of 2016, Holy Cow crushed its first Burger Love. The couple extended the lease for another six months to test whether Morell could sustain both a restaurant and a food truck. The summer went so well they ended up purchasing the building. “The credit union helped us put the deal together and we obviously had to show them our numbers. None of htem could believe what they were seeing,” Gillis says.

After Ashley Cudmore was hired as head chef in the spring of 2017, a flood of catering opportunities began flowing their way. Cudmore’s managerial assistance—“she plays a huge part,” says Gillis — also gave him time to stand back and focus on big-picture operations.

As Burger Love approached, Gillis knew something had to change. Holy Cow had become a victim of its own success. “Last year, people were coming from all over but they had to wait 30 minutes for a seat and another 30 minutes for food. You could hear the grumbling.”

His secret sauce? Instead of bringing the Island to Holy Cow, he took Mr. Irresisti-Bull to them. Gillis gathered his crew and put Wicked Fries back on the road for the Tip-2-Tip Burger Trip. “Our Facebook page blew up!” says Gillis. “We had trouble booking spots initially but after a few days, we had communities approaching us.”

Holy Cow didn’t win Most Loved Burger and Gillis says his employees were pretty disappointed, although some folks suggested they should have earned a congeniality award for sampling and posting about fellow burger contestants on every stop. Gillis also earned enough to buy a second food truck, which he’ll be taking on tour this summer. “At the end of the day, we did exactly what we set out to do: took the stress off the restaurant, increased sales, put all these employees to work and got our name out there. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.” ◊