Well-known Kamsack business begins 40th year

            One of Kamsack’s most prominent businesses is beginning its 40th year today (September 1).

            While celebrating the day, Chester and Gladys Olson of Chester’s, a fast food restaurant featuring chicken, ribs, pizza and burgers, are reminiscing over the past 39 years of working at a successful main street business.

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            “There’s a little bit of Chester’s restaurant in all of us,” it has been said by a Kamsack resident.

            The genesis of Chester’s can be traced back to the 1970s because from 1975 to 1978 the Olsons had owned and operated the gas station at Madge Lake, and in the summer of 1977, Gladys’ uncle, John Sas of Benito, who had owned Parkland Bowling Lanes in Kamsack, a facility that had been converted from the former Elite movie theatre, suggested the Olsons buy it so they could operate the bowling alley in the winter, while keeping the gas station in the summer.

            It was a five-lane bowling alley, Olson said last week. It was unique in Saskatchewan in that most alleys were four lanes.

            “But that took us into the service industry.”

            The purchase was made and the Olsons began operating Parkland Bowling Lanes, while serving confectionery items and hot dogs.

It was after Eugene Kiwaluk had told Chester of the possible availability of a Hannigan’s franchise that an inquiry was made and by 1978 the company had sent its representatives to Kamsack, measurements were taken, approval was granted and the couple was taking Hannigan’s training.

The business opened as Hannigan’s Hamburgers and Parkland Bowling Lanes, which in addition to five bowling lanes, featured a 24-seat restaurant.

And bowling played a big part in the business and in the couple’s lives. Chester’s father, Archie and Gladys were both avid bowlers. Soon, Gladys had won two national tournaments in team bowling, while Archie was involved in senior bowling.

“We were open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” Chester said, explaining that there had been a morning league, a women’s league that bowled twice a week, a mixed league three times a week and the Youth Bowling Council league on Saturdays.

“We worked with everyone from children to seniors at the bowling alley,” he said. “We belonged to the provincial and federal bowling associations.

“That was one of our most enjoyable times in business.”

Although Hannigan’s had opened with 12 employees, the Olsons soon realized it did not merit more than four.

At the grand opening of the business, Mayor Mike Nadane had cut the ribbon that had been held by Mike Sas and John Welykholowa.

By 1982 the Hannigan’s chain had gone bankrupt, but the Olsons kept the name for another 10 years before re-naming it Chester’s Place.

“Our chicken and burgers are almost exactly the same now as what we made when we were a Hannigan’s franchise,” he said. In 1985, Chester and Gladys added pizza to the menu, and by 1993 they had added ribs.

Asked which of the four featured menu items, ribs, pizza, chicken or burgers, is the most popular, Olson said they are all about equal.

By 1985, Chester had Olson’s Home Style Laundromat constructed “from the ground up” on property a couple doors up the street and then he acquired the building that had housed Dr. Les Laevens’ clinic and eventually was responsible for providing office space for several doctors, including Dr. Geoff Drew, doctors Allan Donsky and Michelle Moss and Dr. Renouf.

In 1986, the Olsons purchased Percy’s Elite Confectionery, located two doors south of the restaurant. After Percy Goodland had retired, the ownership went to the Sasyniuks, then Alex Podwin and then Olson. He eventually sold it to Ted Quewezance.

While operating Percy’s, Chester said that he would open at 5 a.m. and very often when he’d open the doors in the morning, he’d look down main street to see half-ton trucks lined up, their drivers waiting for him to open so they could have their morning coffee.

“Many days I’d sell 150 cups of coffee before 9 a.m.,” he said, listing the names of some of the many men who were in the habit of stopping by for their morning coffee and chat sessions.

The Olson’s offered a catering business from 1979 to 1991.

“We just sold chicken, but we did well,” Olson said of the catering business. “But it was a lot of work.”

From 1986 to 1991, he and Eileen Achtymichuk owned and operated Toro’s Restaurant in the Kamsack Shopping Plaza.

It was in 1991 that Don Vanin and his wife had purchased the lanes, which were lifted from the building and moved to the former Macleods’ building.

“It took about a month to move the lanes,” he said, explaining that in the space where the lanes were once located, he first opened a community bingo hall, working with various community organizations. After about two years, when the Cote First Nation decided to open a similar facility, VLTs were becoming a possibility, so Olson expanded the restaurant, creating space for VLTs, video games and pool tables.

Chester had begun working with Michael Gaudent, a Veregin-based artist, and Bill Abetkoff, a miniaturist, and together they had devised a plan to incorporate a type of museum, or theme park where the bowling lanes had been, that would reflect Kamsack’s past as a railway town.

Olson produced an oversized briefcase containing several large drawings and an artist’s renderings of plans for the museum. It would have included a replica of the former CNR station, and would trace the railway tracks from Dauphin to Humboldt with Kamsack, the site of the “roundhouse,” in the middle. Plans were to have photographs displayed of Kamsack’s many retired railroaders and a visitor would be able to push a button at each photo to hear his railroad story told.

“We were going to have the Roundhouse Bar,” he said, adding that before the project got off the ground, Abetkoff suffered with severe health issues and the project was halted. Gaudet had painted the large outdoor sign, including an image of Chester, which has decorated the front of the business from then until a few months ago when it, much weathered and faded, was taken down, and is now being replaced by a new “Chester’s” sign made by Carol Belley of The Edge Signs.

Chester brought in a Roger’s Video operation in 2002 and continued to rent first VHS movies and then DVD movies until 2013, when technology changed, allowing people to access their films via the Internet rather than waiting to rent DVD versions.

Asked what it was like doing business in Kamsack over those years, Olson said that with the huge interest rates of the 1980s he wouldn’t want to re-live the experience, but it had been very interesting and the businesses he had been involved in had done well.

In addition to his business interests, Chester has been actively involved in the community for 10 years, particularly in the economic development committee, for which he served as the chair. The committee was instrumental in proposing ethanol and feedlot projects, encouraged the establishment of the Kamsack SARCAN outlet, fostered the development of the strawboard plant and started the First Co-operative Loans Association. 

Olson produced a series of frames containing many photographs of the past 40 years and in them were pictures of his staff and customers.

“I’ve had so many good customers,” he said.

 “It’s sad. We’ve lost so many. There’s a generation of wonderful people who had supported our businesses over the years and they’re all gone now.”

So the business continues. Asked if he is planning any more changes, Olson referred to the old adage that says, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Chester and Gladys continue to operate Chester’s from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays with two part-time staff: their daughter Chelsey and Kathy Paluck.

“We are building an Internet website which will keep customers informed on the menu and updates, and we’re now involved with the Kamsack Indoor Rodeo Association,” he said explaining that between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. each Friday, representatives of the rodeo group sell tickets on the Lasso the Two lottery.

Olson still has a keen interest in the community’s development. Currently he’s working on trying to encourage the federal government to construct a federal penitentiary in the community. He’s considering a facility to house 500 inmates, which would require a staff of 370 full-time employees in good-paying jobs.

“Such a facility would turn the town into a city,” he said, explaining that there is a definite need across Canada for more penitentiaries, because many of them are currently overcrowded.

“Communications with Ralph Goodale, are good,” he said of his contacts with the Saskatchewan Liberal Member of Parliament. “The plan is to focus on addictions and mental health.

“It’s been a really good career,” Olson said. “I have to thank all the people of Kamsack and area for all their business over the years. It has really been appreciated.”

He said it is exciting to be greeted by former residents returning for a visit and even their children who are now dropping in to say hello.