The lineups are a testament to the popularity of Peter’s Drive-In, the “drive-in you can’t drive by”. Located on 16 Ave NE on the northern end of the Calgary community of Crescent Heights, this burger and shake joint is older than the Calgary Tower and just as iconic. Everyone knows where it is and rare is the person in Calgary who has never been there.
The original Peter’s Drive-In was located on the east side of Edmonton Trail but moved over to it’s present location in 1964. It was founded by Gus Pieters, a baker and pastry chef who immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1954. He worked in the Arctic to save $15,000 to start his burger joint, calling it Peter’s which was easier for Canadians to recognize than his Dutch surname.
Pieters chose a simple menu. Burgers made from real meat. Milkshakes made with real ingredients including fresh fruit. Good quality cooking oil for his fries and onion rings. Old-fashioned food sold at a walk-up window or through a drive-thru window. The only thing about the menu that’s really changed in 56 years are the ever-expanding array of milkshake flavours.
When Peter’s burgers were voted Canada’s best burger in the early 1970s, business really started to boom. Bus loads of skiers zooming through Calgary en route to the mountains would make a pit stop in Calgary. Line ups increased. Gus Pieters started buying up the surrounding houses on the block where the drive-inn stood and tore them down to create parking. He added a grass area and picnic tables. The people still kept coming. The City had to erect barricades to prevent people from cutting through the neighbourhood because the restaurant was so popular. Pieters complied with every request to reroute traffic in an effort to be a good neighbour.
Pieters was known for his generosity. He paid his employees very well -above minimum wage – and treated everyone like they were one of the family. He hired people with disabilities and was there, at his desk in the back of the kitchen, on a daily basis. Some staff were with him for 30 years or more.
In 2005 Pieters retired to his farm just outside of Calgary with his wife Barbara and passed away just a few years after. He sold the business to new owners who have made very few changes. The packaging has changed a bit, they introduced payment via debit and implemented a better way to keep track of money. Up til 2005, staff would take orders by pencil, writing people’s orders on the back of a paper bag or cardboard drink tray just as they did in 1962. It was part of Peter’s old-fashioned charm.
In a recent straw-poll on Facebook we asked Calgarians to tell us what it was about Peter’s Drive-In that made it so remarkable. Nearly 200 people responded, some saying the burgers were great, some saying they weren’t so great. But a large majority of folks said it was the milkshakes that kept them coming back, driving across town or even driving into town just to make a special trip. Some of the favourite flavours mentioned were licorice and maple walnut. Many said it was the fact that you could request a custom flavour and a blend of different flavours that was the most fantastic part.
Long-time Calgarians said their parents took them to Peter’s when they were young. In a time before the major hamburger restaurants had come to Calgary, Peter’s was one of the rare fast-food options. A trip to Peter’s was a special event and one they wanted to share with their own children. A new Calgarian, who arrived from Ontario, said the first time they visited Peter’s Drive-In and ordered large fries, what they got was a shoe-box filled with fries. People take out-of-town visitors to Peter’s.
Whether you care for the food or not, Peter’s Drive-In offers touch of nostalgia and truly is the drive inn you can’t drive by.