A lot of things have changed in Halifax over the last fifty plus years, but thankfully some things have stayed the same. One of those things is John’s Lunch a legendary, no-frills diner that is a landmark near the Woodside ferry terminal wharf known for Canadian’s best fish ’n’ chips and top-notch customer service. We chat with Kathy Hilchey and Irene Baltas long time employees that have transitioned into co-owners and the first women to own the iconic brand since it was started by Greek Immigrants in the late 60’s.
When John Sarganis opened the doors to John’s Lunch in 1969, I am sure that he never imagined that his diner on Pleasant Street in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia would be a cherished landmark and become such an iconic brand known for delectable diner favourites and award-winning seafood 52 years, or did he?
John Sarganis built the brand by serving loyal regulars and new friends along the way and yes Halifax and Dartmouth have seen many changes over the past half century, but this iconic diner has maintained the same recipes for all of this time, while adding some new favourites to the menu over the years.
Kathy Hilchey and Irene Baltas are long-time employees of John’s Lunch, having worked there for more than twenty years each, bought out their uncle (Stratos Baltas who’d put in 25 years himself) in 2016 when he wanted to retire. The pair were up to the challenge of becoming the first women to own the iconic restaurant since it was started by Greek Immigrants in 1969.
Kathy has been involved in the restaurant industry for over 42 years, started working for her uncle in 1979. Kathy proudly states that she has always been the in the restaurant industry and will tell you that she never wanted to be an office person. She loved the flexibility that the restaurant industry gave her to enjoy her other passions in life. Irene is a mother of two boys and has a paralegal background and worked for the Department of Justice for many years. Being the daughter of a restaurateur and her family part of that industry all of her life, she soon realized that waitressing was a lot more fun, and she could work less hours and make a lot more money while having a better work life balance for her and her family.
Irene started at John’s Lunch when she was 19 years old. She tells us that she had just started working for the Department of Justice and her uncle approached her about working part-time for the restaurant. Irene has always been a hard worker with more than one job on the go even when she was young and had a paper route plus would babysit for families in the neighborhood. So, as she says, “I was always open to a side hustle and just ended up falling in love with the place.” As for Kathy, she had worked for thirty-five different restaurants before finding her place at John’s Lunch twenty-two years ago. Kathy told us that it was not long after she started working here, maybe a year, that she knew that she would retire from this place, but don’t get any ideas she is not going anywhere soon. She like Irene fell in love with the restaurant, the fun family atmosphere and the customers. “When you are crazy busy and getting slammed with orders and still can have fun and joke with others working around you and your customers you know you are in the right place,” said Kathy.
As mentioned, the restaurant was opened by John Sarganis and then a few years later he was looking to retire, and he sold the business to Stratos Baltas and his business partner. Then in 2015 Stratos, then in his 70’s, was looking to retire and was setting up the plan to get out of the industry, as he had worked in restaurants all his life and was ready to step away from the business and the industry. He had a plan in place and unfortunately his partner at the time changed the plan that would see Stratos transition out of the business. So, with these changes Stratos was left with the choice to either close the iconic restaurant or save the legendary diner and sell to a new owner. Thankfully, Stratos approached Kathy and Irene about purchasing the restaurant. Both said that it was a simple decision, “Do you save a legend or do you shut it down, we wanted to save a legend,” said Kathy with Irene quickly agreeing. Kathy went on to say, we were both up to the challenge, we both knew we could do this and more or less looked at each other and said, “Let’s do this,” and their transition from long time employee to owners took place in the Summer of 2016.
Now with a change in ownership comes the new challenges, how do you keep a legendary business and the iconic brand like John’s Lunch the same? Well, the answer was simple, “If it isn’t broken don’t fix it.” The only thing that has changed is the ownership. Kathy and Irene both state their continued commitment to the quality and value of the food from the diner. They continue to use the same recipes and cooking methods that John used when he opened the place back in 1969. Now back then he was hoping to sell twenty orders of fish and chips a day, which today would be a very slow lunch for the diner. As you can image the kitchen was not set up for the volume of business the diner does today, ‘They make it work because that is the John’s Lunch way’, said Irene. Kathy adds, “Do you know how many times you have to wash a melamine counter to take the finish off them? Neither do I but it is a lot.” Kathy and Irene are sourcing from the same suppliers to make sure they are serving customers food that is made from the freshest local ingredients in the same friendly atmosphere and offering the same value which has always been at the heart of the business.
Another important part of the transition of the business is when it comes to the retention of staff. Kathy told us when her and Irene took over the business when she added up the years of combined service of the team that it was over two hundred years of experience with some employees dating back to when John originally owned the business. In a time when most restaurants are struggling to find servers and other staff it says a lot about the culture of John’s Lunch.
When Kathy and Irene purchased the restaurant, Stratos former partner also opened a new restaurant however, not a single member of the staff moved to the new restaurant. This says a lot again about the culture and what it is like to work as part of this team, and it goes without saying that the John’s Lunch team is definitely a family that supports each other. If you ever have the opportunity to eat at this iconic diner you will see that yes; they have a lot of fun, but they do take the success of the brand and the customer experience very seriously.
Although the restaurant itself and the staff did not change when the business transitioned, one thing that did change was its online presence. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram play a huge roll in business now especially with younger customers and for those travelling to the area looking for places to eat during their visit to the area. Kathy and Irene want to make sure that they can find the diner when visitors are here or when they are planning their visit. Plus, increased social media presence allows the diner to stay engaged and connect with their loyal customers and keep our hungry fans up to date with operational changes, specials, and holiday hours. The website has also been updated to allow customers to order and pay online for orders. They have also joined the delivery platforms like Skip and Uber to help satisfy their seafood cravings. All of these updates have played an important role for the business’s survival when the food industry shut down in Nova Scotia for in restaurant dining because of the covid pandemic.
Speaking of the covid pandemic, John’s Lunch was one of the first restaurants in HRM to close their doors because of the outbreak of the first wave of the pandemic. The restaurant was closed from March 17th until June 15th, when it reopened for takeout only. Both Kathy and Irene said it was one of the best decisions that they made to protect both their staff and customers. Both owners have said they will continue to operate with only the takeout options for the summer and have invested in upgrading their outside dining area with new picnic tables and an outdoor heater plus the addition of a new pick-up window to better serve their hungry customers. Kathy and Irene both said that they will re-assess opening the doors for in restaurant dining in the Fall.
When John’s Lunch wins awards for their amazing food, some of the fancier places in the city, where you would pay a lot more for less food, roll their eyes and turn their noses up to their accomplishments. But the interesting thing is when these same chefs are looking for great seafood that is affordable for their family, they are coming to John’s Lunch because they know the quality of the food that they will receive.
To be honest the only comments Kathy and Irene truly care about are those of their customers. Don’t get me wrong they appreciate the awards and work hard to achieve them, but great reviews like the one left by Kim Sheeler of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“My first visit to John’s Lunch was in 1984, shortly after moving to Halifax. I tried the clams and chips, and my life was forever changed!
Or the one from Brian Barnes of Ottawa, Ontario who commented.
“What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Best fish n chips in Canada, maybe the world.”
We think this recommendation from Stephen Stone is spot on.
“John’s Lunch – an institution since 1969 – serves the best clams and chips. The coleslaw – which is homemade is superb. They also have an assortment of other seafood dishes. The fish ’n’ chips is really delicious – the best in Canada (you can look it up). The service is top notch. If you come to Dartmouth, head out on Pleasant Street until you get to John’s Lunch. Treat yourself to a heaping plate of deep-fried whole clams and a side of slaw. Tell them a long-time customer sent you.”
It is these types of reviews from paying customers that let people know what to expect from John’s Lunch and why it has become the iconic brand it is today and one of the stops on John Catucci’s “Big Food Bucket List.”
All I can say is whether it is dining in or taking out, if you want amazing fresh seafood at a great value you need to put our friends at John’s Lunch on your foodie bucket list for your next trip to Dartmouth when you are out exploring Nova Scotia.
by Ryan Myson