Old timey burger chains are quirky — their rises to prominence riddled with bootstrapping anecdotes that seem fanciful in today's hashtag age of instant gratification. Take Montreal's Dic Ann's. Now home to 13 franchises and a food truck, the homegrown outfit started humbly in 1954 by Dominic "Dic" Potenza and Ann Collecchia on the corner of Crémazie and Papineau. The landmark Montreal North outlet came two years later. Even Montrealers who have never had a Dic Ann's burger can probably tell you what makes it so very different: the patty's uncommon thinness, the toasted bun, and the hot sauce. In the spirit of good local chains everywhere, Dic Ann's is special in other ways too. You won't find Coca-Cola products at a Dic Ann's — ever — and don't ask for sauce on the side. Want to supersize those fries? Forget it. There are logical reasons for all of this, of course. Besides, who wants a homegrown burger chain without some personality?
The personality that drives Dic Ann's is still, in many respects, its founder. Dominic Potenza passed away in 2009 but his legacy lives on thanks to his grandchildren, Delbina Potenza and Anthony Zammit. Zammit recently sat down for a special Eater Burger Week interview.
By all accounts your grandfather was a disciplined creature of habit. Was this the secret sauce behind Dic Ann’s longevity? And have you adopted some of his traits now that you’re in charge?
Oh yeah, for sure. He definitely was. I think we both have, me and my cousin. I think we've inherited a lot of things from him. My grandfather stood up for what he believed in and was very loyal. We try to continue that today, with customers, suppliers and franchisees. We're always looking out for them. He was a man of his word — for him a handshake was enough. We want to show people that there are still people like that.
He was a man of his word — for him a handshake was enough.
Did you grow up in the restaurants?
We all did. There are seven grandkids in all. Only two of us are in the business but each one of us, as well as our parents, were behind the counters. We were in cribs in the back. Dic Ann’s is literally in my blood. My mom was eating burgers when she was pregnant. Same for my cousin. I remember my grandfather coming in in the morning. Taking walks with him around the restaurant. I have a photo of him from when I was two years old. I’m walking in his footsteps, copying the way he walked, with his arms around his back.
Dic Ann’s is literally in my blood.
Is there any pressure to preserve his legacy?
It's so hard to start a business now and gain a following and get people excited about your product. It's very rare now. Every day that goes by, we cannot believe that people are still so loyal to Dic Ann's. You don't see that often. It's humbling and we feel very fortunate. And on a large scale, we're still a tiny dot. To have regular customers say it's the only fast food they eat, or vegetarians who say it's the only meat they eat, it’s gratifying. We just want to continue what was built and stick to the principles that got us here.
Customers have to feel like they're in the original and the only Dic Ann's in the city.
Can you talk a bit about Dic Ann’s approach to expansion over the last few decades?
Pie IX was the only location for a while. In 1981 we opened in Laval. That’s the restaurant that I grew up in. It was a long time before we started expanding. My grandfather wanted to cover north, south, east, west. One franchise in each. That's sort of how we started. Anjou, the West Island across from Fairview, then after he covered his bases, franchisees approached us and showed interest. There have been spurts of growth but because of how tough it is, it's hard to find people willing to work and who have the capital to support the business. At first it was only old school employees who opened franchises. We had to build a huge trust before we gave them the opportunity to go it alone. And they took it to heart. Nowadays people want to know, what is my return? It’s money first. It’s a younger mentality where they don't save up as much. Every time we open a new restaurant we let franchisees know that customers have to feel like they're in the original and the only Dic Ann's in the city. That’s the ultimate goal.
Dic Ann’s is so entrenched in Montreal that the restaurant’s unusual burger is part of the landscape. But with expansion do you find you have to explain it to new customers?
With our established restaurants, they don't remark how unusual the burger is. They've been referred by a friend, they just kind of know. With newer locations or the food truck, people are caught off guard. What is this? Well it’s a thin patty, it cooks fast and you get to eat it right away. That was the idea from the start. My grandfather wanted to work with volume, assembly line style, but with simple, good quality products. That's how he came up with the idea.
The older generation just wants their Hi Boy, cheeseburger, cheese double.
We don't spend on marketing. We prefer to keep costs low. Social media is a cheap, efficient way to educate new customers about Dic Ann’s. The food truck was a great investment too because new people discover us at different events. We've had a great response. Because of the smaller burger you don't realize what you're getting sometimes. As we evolve we have to ask, what do people want without changing the menu too much? So we have the Quattro, the new 3D-ST burger — both play on what we have without diluting it. We're more customizable than people realize. You want extra patties, we do that. Lettuce and tomato [the famous Dic Ann’s Hi Boy], we do that. The older generation just wants their Hi Boy, cheeseburger, cheese double. They come with exact change ready, they order, they eat and go. But we do have to adapt a little for the newer generation.