Oh, Zellers. The Canadian department store legend only (possibly) rivaled by nostalgia for BiWay… how we miss you.
We miss Zeddy. We miss the $0.25 kids rides just inside the front doors. We miss the 24-hour Christmas schedule when they’d give you free cookies, a coffee, and let you shop at 3am. We miss Alfred Sung. We miss Massimo. We miss it all, yes we do.
But, what do I personally miss most of all? The Zellers Diner. These little numbers were family faves and senior citizen gathering places for decades. With different decor, from the classic 1950s diner to 1980s contemporary (and cigarette stained) glory, depending on location, they were often called The Zellers Restaurant.
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have their own memories of the Zellers Diner, but (considering previous proclamations of love for Westmount Mall and Westmount in general), I will be looking back on the good old days of Zellers at Viscount and Wonderland in London, ON. Many high school classes were skipped to partake in tomfoolery around the jukebox and I (amongst many others) wouldn’t have changed one bit of it.
But first, let’s look back on how the store and the restaurant came to be before lamenting the loss and reminiscing upon days gone by.
In the beginning…
Walter P. Zeller first opened three Zellers locations in Ontario (one being in London) in 1928. He then sold the name to American company Shulte-United who, not long after, went bankrupt. So, Zeller purchased said name back and officially incorporated Zellers in 1931 as a discount department store. Over the years other companies were brought into the dealings and the store expanded rapidly having 60 locations by 1957. As more Zellers stores opened, they became increasingly innovative, adding new features and additional departments. It was on a glorious day in 1960 that the first Zellers Restaurant opened its doors and suburban lives were never the same again.
Come 1978, Zellers was purchased by the Hudson Bay Company (you could now collect Club Z Points along with HBC Rewards) and by the mid-1980s, following the relocation and expansion of Eaton’s, Zeddy made his latest home at Westmount Mall. And yes, that new shiny Diner opened its doors to the public. From there, the diner became a beacon of greasy spoon menu options, morning meetings over coffee, and a hotspot for Saunders S.S. teens to consume sodium on their spares.
Where oh where can my Zeddy be…
The glory days continued for almost three decades worth of burgers, fries, and milkshakes. However, in the early 2000s big time American chains like Walmart and, eventually, Target, began to threaten the Zellers empire. Inevitably, due to “rollback” price competition and heavily funded growth of these southern giants, Zellers stores began to close and with that came widespread Diner disappearance.
“The lowest price is the law” became even more accurate as shoppers demanded implementation of this line in the consumer constitution.
In 2011, Target announced its expansion into Canada and that, by March 2013, Zellers stores would no longer be operating as such (except for a select few). As stores began to close, and Target moved in, we had to say goodbye to our precious Diners and reluctantly greet (the very grassroots choice of) Starbucks in its place.
Let’s remember the good olde days…
By 2013, Zellers Westmount was in the process of liquidation and after the Diner closed its doors and the peach drink fountain was shut down, no table, chair, or fixture was safe from public purchase. When I think back to standing in that upturned and lifeless Diner while people rummaged through the once prolific pieces of history, a few tears came to eyes. In part because so many meals were had, dreams discussed, and coffee consumed in that place. But also because I wish I’d had enough money to buy at least one of those table sets as a momento.
Still though, as goes with all reminiscences, there’s some sadness but a whole lot of joy while looking back on the simpler days of adolescence and unimpinged Canadian business. That being said, let’s recall some of the best things brought to us by, the one and only, Zellers Diner.
1 – The jukebox. For a cool dollar, you could sit and listen to your favourite Elvis record over a plate brimming with meatloaf.
2 – The teal, sparkly booths… one day I will find one and it will be installed in my house.
3 – Randomly finding relics of the Diner or Zellers itself in unexpected places. Like the tables, chairs or light fixtures at some bar or restaurant in a different city. Or perhaps an old shopping cart at hodge podge liquidation stores.
4 – The friendly staff that never let your coffee cup run dry. My friend and I spent every 2nd period spare at the Diner one year, consuming breakfast (with hash brown patties, not fried potatoes) and drinking coffee until we shook. Whoever started to shake first won. A healthy competition.
5 -DIPPERS. I hope with all my heart that every single Canadian old enough to remember a meal at the Diner experienced this wondrous menu item. Basically, they were thick potato chips… or really thin potatoes. No matter how you look at it, they were deep fried deliciousness that came with your choice of dip, on a gigantic plate, for like $2. It didn’t get any better.
6 – The coffee clubs. Otherwise known as groups of senior citizens who lounged for hours and kind of seemed to never leave.
7 – The atmosphere in its entirety. The Zellers Diner was a place frozen in time. It made the young feel older and the old feel younger. It was a place of community and a home away from home. Caffeine and sodium levels were off the charts but no matter what, time spent at the Diner, was time well spent.
Zellers and the Zellers Diner/Restaurant, gone but not forgotten and remembered very, very fondly!
This account was based on the Diner in Westmount Mall, so feel free to share your memories from here or any other location! What a place…
Feature photo by Nicki Borland