Entertainment and Sports

The Big Top

In a world mired by inefficiency and ineptitude, watching The Big Top staff do their jobs is as good the food.

By Kevin Somers
Published February 15, 2006

With some regrets, we moved from the east end of Hamilton recently. We were close to Gage Park and the Bruce Trail, but, as much as anything, I'll miss The Big Top Restaurant from our old 'hood.

The Big Top has been a fixture at Sherman and Main St. East for over 50 years. It's a family place in every sense of the word; Jimmy, the chef, took over from his father and has handed the establishment to his son.

Most days, Jimmy single-handedly cooks all the meals on a large skillet behind the counter for all to see. It's like you're in his kitchen.

Jimmy doesn't use a computer or write things down and is quite likely to be carrying on a conversation with a patron or two while turning out a variety of hot meals.

When The Big Top fills up, however, Jimmy is all business. Waitresses Anna and Liz have worked there for 39 years and 34 years respectively, and work the room like Sinatra.

They call you Dear, remember everything requested, and top up coffee without being asked. In a world mired by inefficiency and ineptitude, watching The Big Top staff do their jobs is as good the food.

I am an egg man and when it comes to omelets, The Big Top has few rivals. They come with generous servings of home fries and toast, so with a little ketchup to spark the palate, and thick, well buttered toast to mop the plate, it's hard to find a better way to fill the void in Hamilton or elsewhere.

Made with three large eggs, and chock-a-block with fresh ingredients, the omelets are wholesomely delicious, too. It's simply beautiful.

When friends visited, I would often take them to The Big Top and treat them to a quality breakfast and a demonstration in effectiveness and economy that Ronald McDonald, Burger King, and all the other clowns in their industry couldn't contemplate. There's little fat at Jimmy's establishment, unlike many of his competitors in the food business.

Fast food places hire armies of disaffected staff, and splurge recklessly on computers, appliances, headgear, uniforms, advertising, theme parks, universities, pins, presents, gimmicks, games, lots, lobbies, and location, location, location.

They also employ layers of managers (shift, assistant, store, regional, district, national etc.) and marketers, all in an effort to put out food that inspires obesity, litigation, and documentaries detailing the horrors of their product.

Furthermore, you're made to wait in line, carry your own tray, and bus the table. Staff may say the scripted pleasantries, but rarely are they nice; most, I suspect, realize they are being grossly under compensated.

The whole experience is fraught with indignity, but the industry seems to thrives like cockroaches in a slob's kitchen; new franchises abound. Go figger.

Each staff member at The Big Top has a variety of tasks they are expected to perform: waitresses greet customers, answer the phone, work the cash, make milkshakes, and clear tables, for example.

Considering the volume and traffic, there aren't a lot of employees, but they work well as a team and are not micromanaged by a dimwitted, obtuse ninny, who claims to be an efficiency expert. They are good at their jobs and left alone to perform them.

Fast food gurus could learn a lot from Jimmy and his staff, who provide fresh, hot meals served with quiet expedience so you can relax and read the paper.

There's a full menu and breakfast is served all day. Meals starting at $3.95 for the special and go up to $9.95 for roast sirloin with all the trimmings.

The Big Top is on the southeast corner and street parking is available on the north side of Main (in front of Shoppers Drug Mart), on Sherman, or other side streets. The food is good; the prices are fair, and the efficiency refreshing.

Kevin Somers is a Hamilton writer.


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